Our hopelessly biased media brings up the subject of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism on a regular basis. One way they can do this while not attracting attention to themselves is to go out and interview Evangelicals on why they’re struggling with voting for a Mormon. This is a clever diversion that, while bringing up an interesting subject, deflects attention from the fact that anyone with a serious belief in God (i.e., one who acts on it) gives them the creeps.
But let’s turn the question around: how come it is that Evangelicals, doubtless the main driving force behind social conservatism in the Republican Party, cannot seem to get one of their own nominated these days for either spot on the ticket? Most would give the stock answers: the media will pummel any Evangelical nominated, George W. Bush, the “Regular Republicans,” etc. The basic concept behind this is that Evangelicals are the recipients of a raw deal in the public square and that, if our system were more “fair” things would be different.
It’s true that the media, by and large, love to pummel Evangelicals. It’s also true that George W. Bush did nothing to advance the reputation of Evangelicals in this country. Evangelicals’ biggest mistake re GWB was to canonise him after 9/11 the way they did. When he ran in 2000, many Evangelicals had reservations about him which proved justified.
But, as I always say, if you believe that everything bad that happens to you is someone else’s fault, you’re a failure. Now that our nomination is done, three out of four debates are in the can, and the election fast approaches, we need to stop the blame game and ask ourselves: why cannot Evangelicals manage to get at least one of their own on the ticket? Or, to turn the question around, why do we have a Mormon and a Roman Catholic–two bêtes noires to Evangelicals if there ever were–there in the first place?
I think the answer to this lies in the way the various religious groups/organisations cultivate their leaders (or don’t). Let’s start with the Mormons. Mitt Romney reminds us regularly that he was a leader in his church, not only on a lay vestry/deacon board but of the stake itself. My first personal contact with this was an attorney friend of mine whom I found chowing down at the local buffet (and with the waistline to go with it) before he headed off to a ward meeting. Mormonism, for all of its faults, does not distinguish between clergy and laity the way that Christian groups do, and so the leaders of their stakes and wards and ultimately of the church itself are drawn directly from their membership. That’s enough to give someone the kind of socialisation and leadership experience which is valuable in politics.
The situation with Roman Catholics is almost the opposite. You have a celibate priesthood who “hold the keys” to just about everything, and unless you are ready to enter that, you can just about hang it up in the church. What Roman Catholicism has, however, is an unmatched intellectual tradition that challenges those who can get past the banalities of parish life to find it. So lay people who want to move forward do so with secular achievement, which is why SCOTUS has so many Roman Catholics.
With Evangelicals, as they say, it’s complicated.
In the past, Evangelical churches have certainly encouraged lay leadership within, if not political involvement without. The Southern Baptists even elected one as SBC President one year, and the career of Judge Paul Pressler has had a major influence on the course of that denomination. Trends in the last forty years, however, have mitigated against that, especially with men. Gothardian authoritarianism, coupled with the Boomer tendency to think “it’s all about me” have centralised control in churches in the hands of pastors who dislike power sharing. In a male dominated field, the men of the church are the greatest potential competitors to that control, so rhetoric notwithstanding the system mitigates against the development of strong male leadership in the church apart from the clergy.
By the time Evangelicals woke up to the state of things and started to run people for office, prominent “values” candidates tended to be drawn from two sources: the ministers (Pat Robertson, Mike Huckabee) or the women (Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann). (In regions where Evangelicals are strong, a more traditional pattern of laymen continue to present themselves for public office). Ministers, for all the skills they may bring to the table, are not in general ideal for political life, especially beyond the state level. That’s because in many eyes they’re always associated with the church they come out of, and that can be a liability both within and without Christianity. Conservative women of any kind are a horror to our left; their ascendancy would do more than anything else to wreck the hegemony of identity politics, which are the bedrock of the left’s own hegemony in American political life. They will do just about anything to take down a conservative woman. That was the hard lesson of 2008.
One other factor that works against Evangelicals in politics is the lack of a strong intellectual tradition within Evangelicalism. While this makes the faith easily comprehensible and adoptable for new converts, for those looking for different horizons, it discourages “out of the box” type approaches and solutions to problems. (The whole conundrum of civil marriage is a classic example of this, but in fairness neither the LDS nor the RCC has done any better). It hasn’t always been this way; Charles Finney, for example, was very much an “out of the box” kind of thinker whose impact on the advance of American Christianity has been enormous.
Until Evangelical churches go back to a more democratic way of operation, they will never develop the kind of lay leadership–men or women–who will make the kind of impact in the world around them that’s necessary, either in the political sphere or elsewhere. As long as the Boomers are in charge, that’s highly unlikely, and so will be a viable Evangelical candidate on a national level.
There’s also the argument that Evangelical Christianity, for all of its move into the political arena, is by design not suited for the task. But that’s for another post.