A Quick Response to Douthat

Over at Atlantic Monthly, Ross Douthat responds to my post on Mitt Romney and Mormonism, writing:

[Oman’s] analysis makes a lot of sense; I only object to note of self-pity at the end. Just because evangelicals (and Catholics, to a lesser extent) are using Mormonism as a marker to legitimize their own theological compromises doesn’t mean it isn’t a reasonable marker to use. It isn’t only about Oman’s religion, but it is about it to a great extent: Mormonism is a useful marker of how far ecumenism can go (and how far it can’t) precisely because there are much, much deeper theological commonalities between, say, the Vatican and the Southern Baptist Convention than between either body and the the LDS Church. And while it’s true that Mormons get more attention, and hostility, than other similarly-heterodox strands of American religion, they’re at least partially victims of their own success. If the Jehovah’s Witnesses, say, were doing as well as the Mormons are at winning converts, their tenets might be playing the same sort of “here’s where the Great Tradition stops” role in debates over ecumenical cooperation. But they aren’t, so they don’t.

Ross is right to call me on the tone of self-pity that creeps in at the end of my post. (Growing up on tales of anti-Mormon mobs, murdered leaders, and federal prosecutions tends to hardwire a certain persecution complex into the Mormon psyche, I suspect.)

I do, however, think that his response breezes rather quickly to the issue of theological difference and ecumenism. I would be the last to deny that there are real and important theological differences between Mormonism and Protestantism or Catholicism. However, it is not simply these theological differences that account for the strange political salience of Mormonism as an issue for some non-trivial segment of the Republican base. Rather, I think that the fact that the details of Mormon theology matter so intensely as a political issue for some voters comes from their need to assert — if only to themselves — their theological integrity in the face of political compromises. It is not Mormon theology but the strange series of historical accidents that pushed conservative evangelical protestants and conservative catholics into alliance that is causing most of Romney’s “Mormon problem,” a development that Mormonism had very little to do with. Furthermore, the fact that this same non-trivial chunk of the Republican base believes that the theological marker for ecumenism is also a valid reason in principle for rejecting a Mormon candidate is simply a graphic illustration of the problems of conflating ecumenism and political coalition building. It also illustrates that at least for some, Mormonism’s status as a religious outsider is sufficient reason to relegate Mormons to the status of outsiders within the political community as well. Supporter of a basically liberal political order (and member of the Mormon tribe) that I am, I find that a bit disquieting.

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4 Responses

  1. Christian Miller says:

    Perhaps as you raise them, the concerns are not nearly as palpable as they are portrayed.

    From one of the leaders of the evangelical-Catholic alliance:

    http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=918

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