From The New Yorker - Jan. 7, 2008
Out in Iowa, with the bell at last ringing and the combatants charging out of their corners, the Republican card has come down to the Maulinâ Mormon versus the Battlinâ Baptist. Would the Framers be pleased? Doesnât seem likely, somehow. The deists, freethinkers, and assorted Protestants (plus two Catholics) who drafted the Constitution sternly forbade theological sucker punchesââNo religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United Statesâ was how they put itâbut todayâs Republicans make their own rules. Marquess of Queensberry? Not for the new Grand Old Party. (Meanwhile, those groovy Democrats are reprising âThe Mod Squad,â with the white guy, the black guy, and the blonde scrambling to see who gets to make the collar.)
The tale of the tape suggests that Mike Huckabee has to be given the edge, religion-wise. He trained at Ouachita Baptist University and turned pro early, pastoring his own church at twenty-four. A mere nine years later, he was president of the Arkansas Baptist State Conventionâhalf a million strong, a fifth of the stateâs population at the time. He may not be a heavyweight these days (he shed a hundred and ten pounds as governor), but if he no longer has the belly he certainly has the fire.
The fire, yesâbut, affable fellow that he is, minus the brimstone. Huckabeeâs sensational rise has been made possible by his success, so far, at speaking in tongues that evangelicals and non-evangelicals understand differently. âI always tell the story of a lady who asked me, was I a narrow-minded Baptist who thinks only Baptists go to Heaven?â he likes to say. âAnd I told her, âNo, maâam, Iâm more narrow than that. I donât think all the Baptists are going to make it, either.â â Does he mean âLetâs not take this eternal damnation stuff so darn seriouslyâ? Or is it âEverybody roasts in Hell except selected evangelicalsâ? And then there was his instantly famous sound bite at the November 28th YouTube debate, when he was asked where historyâs most revered victim of the death penalty would stand on that issue. âJesus,â Huckabee replied with a rueful smile, âwas too smart to ever run for public office.â This was a clever sally, allowing moderates to infer that he, Huckabee, realizes that capital punishment is morally dubious but (like his gubernatorial predecessor Bill Clinton) supports it for prudential political reasons, while assuring his co-religionists that he, Huckabee, is a humble sinner, albeit one on easy terms with the Lordâwho will forgive His flock the minor sin of clamoring for the modern equivalent of crucifixion.
Lately, though, Huckabee has been getting his signals mixed, like a man putting letters to his wife and his mistress in the wrong envelopes. A few weeks ago at Liberty University (founder: the late J. Falwell), a student asked him what accounted for his rocketing poll numbers. âThereâs only one explanation for it, and itâs not a human one,â he said. âItâs the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of five thousand peopleâand thatâs the only way that our campaign could be doing what itâs doing.â To an evangelical ear, that might sound like simple wonderment. But to many other people it sounded like the ravings of someone who thinks God is his precinct captain.
In Mitt Romneyâs case, itâs the religion itself that may have a glass jaw. When Mittâs father, George Romney, a liberal Republican governor of Michigan, ran for President, in 1968, his Mormonism was just another biographical detail. That was before the Partyâs firm embrace of âfaithâ as a mandatory political talking point. Itâs no longer clear that the dogmas of whatever sect a candidate happens to be affiliated with can be dismissed as irrelevant to the policies he or she might pursue in office.
And the dogmas of Mitt Romneyâs sect are breathtaking. They include these: that in 1827 a young man named Joseph Smith dug up a set of golden plates covered with indecipherable writing; that, with the help of a pair of magic spectacles, he âtranslatedâ the plates from an otherwise unknown language (Reformed Egyptian) into an Olde English that reads like an unfunny parody of the King James Bible; that the Garden of Eden is in Missouri; that American Indians descend from Hebrew immigrants; that Jesus reappeared in pre-Columbian America and converted so many people that the result was a series of archeologically unconfirmable wars in which millions died; that while polygamy had divine approval for most of the nineteenth century, God changed his mind in 1890, just in time for Utah to be allowed into the Union; and that God waited until 1978 to reveal that it was O.K. for blacks to be fully paid-up members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
One might ask, What of it? Plenty of religions have curious doctrines. (Several, for example, hold that on Sundays millions of people drink blood and eat flesh.) The Framers knew this was dangerous territory, which was one reason they tried to rule it out of political bounds. And Romney himself warned, in a speech, titled âFaith in America,â that he delivered on December 6th, âThere are some who would have a Presidential candidate describe and explain his churchâs distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited.â
The weasel word here is âdistinctive.â Romney had no problem describing his churchâs not-so-distinctive doctrines. âThere is one fundamental question,â he continued, as if he were speaking on tax cuts, âabout which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Saviour of mankind.â (But please donât ask about Jesusâ post-Resurrection travel schedule.) The candidate went on to patronize rival religions, administering quick head pats to Catholicism (âI love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Massâ), evangelicalism (for the âapproachabilityâ of its version of God), Pentecostalism (âtenderness of spiritâ), Lutheranism (âconfident independenceâ), Judaism (âancient traditionsâ), and Islam (âfrequent prayerââa bit feeble, that).
Missing from this litany, of course, was something to the effect of âI appreciate the deep commitment to reason of the agnostics and atheists.â Indeed, the only âreligionâ that Romney had anything rude to say about was âthe religion of secularism.â He pointed scornfully at the âemptyâ cathedrals of Europe as evidence of âsocieties just too busy or too âenlightenedâ to venture inside and kneel in prayer,â adding a little later that âany person who has knelt in prayer to the Almightyâ has âa friend and ally in me.â Take that, NATO. On your knees.
Secularism is not a religion. And it is not true that âfreedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,â as Romney maintained. What freedom, including religious freedom, requires is, precisely, secularismâwhich is to say, state neutrality in matters of religion. (Nor does religion require freedom, as the European past and the Middle Eastern present demonstrate; religions, plural, do, however.) âAmericans do not respect believers of convenience,â Romney thundered in his âfaithâ speech. âAmericans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.â These were strange observations, coming as they did from a man whose campaign has consisted largely of jettisoning the beliefs he found convenient as a Massachusetts politician but finds highly inconvenient now that he stands to gain the Republican nomination for President. But then those were merely political beliefs.
Touch gloves, Mitt and Mike. And perhaps, if God interests Himself in the minutiae of earthly politics, Heâll arrange a double knockout.
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