The Magazine

Mormons, Muslims, and Multiculturalism

The deeply dispiriting Romney-Huckabee religion showdown.

Dec 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 15 • By KENNETH ANDERSON
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Some personal declarations: Mitt Romney is not my candidate. He is (in my humble opinion) a man of principles so pragmatic that he lacks any unshakeable political foundation, save that he ought to be president of the United States. He is a politician of the moderate center who has sat down with his consultants in the calculus of management consultants everywhere and concluded that winning the presidency must mean dropping his moderation--itself principally a means of winning office in liberal Massachusetts--and reinventing himself as a man of the right. I'm afraid Fred Barnes was mistaken to suggest a few weeks ago in these pages that Romney means the "CEO as president." Right church, wrong pew. In fact, Romney represents the rational-choice presidency of Bain, Boston Consulting Group, and McKinsey; democracy as the maximization of consumer preferences; the president as primus consultant inter pares. Thanks but no thanks.

Moreover, Romney's consultant skills and consequent lack of principle (yet again in my humble opinion) do indeed derive from a specifically Mormon aspect of his upbringing. It is the two-year mission, in which young men of the church--the pairs of unenviable, dweeby males in their white shirts and ties trudging the streets, seeking converts as a rite of passage to adulthood--are taught discipline, perseverance, responsibility, leadership, self-reliance, teamwork, humility, and the beginnings of wisdom (in striking contrast to most of their non-Mormon peers of similar age). These young men are also taught, however, that success with God, as with life, is fundamentally a matter of sales. There is always a risk of young Mormons' concluding that packaging is more important than product.

A not-insignificant number of the evangelical readers of this essay are now, I take it, solemnly nodding their heads, true, true, very true, how true, all true; quivering and twitching with the sure knowledge, the Text Message from God, that Mormonism is the cult they always thought it was and a shallow one at that. Yet the worship of sales and marketing is not exactly unknown among the numerous evangelicals who promiscuously deride Mormonism as some kind of weird, even dangerous, sect but who themselves gather weekly to--well, what? Sing their country-rockified, feel-good, self-help-book ballads, lovingly serviced with the Word of the Therapeutic God by blow-dried yet humble, down-home yet suburban preachers whose cavernous mega-churches resemble nothing so much as the Wal-Mart of the soul on sale. And you ridicule Mormons? One need not be Christopher Hitchens to think that if there is something funny about Mormons, there is something funnier about a certain brand of evangelicals' condescending to them.

Although I once three decades ago served a Mormon mission in Peru, and am proud that I did, I am not a Mormon believer and have not been for a very long time. I hold no brief for the religion. On the contrary, I gave it up because I found I could not continue to say I believed a religion that had been rash enough to make many historical claims, the testability of which was not safely back in the mists of time in the way that protects Christian belief and worldly reason from meeting up to implode like matter and antimatter. The usual thing for a Mormon intellectual under such circumstances is to discover the beauty of postmodernism and its flexibility about rationality and empirical truth, but I'd rather stick with regular old modernity and the Enlightenment even if they don't grant me complete freedom to believe seemingly contradictory things. The same goes for Mike Huckabee and his Bible fabulism. Yet neither is this an antireligious brief in the style of Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who make breathless arguments as though they were the world's first skeptics. There are very serious arguments, arguments I embrace, that preserve the possibility of religious belief on the basis of mystical experience. Unfortunately they are not available to rescue Romney's faith in events claimed to have happened in historical time in the Western Hemisphere. And they are also not available to rescue Huckabee's followers from their Bible literalism.