James Crabtree has an interesting profile in the Financial Times on the “new generation of Mormons” as a global religion and one whose members are increasingly part of global elites in business, finance, government, in many places around the world. It is a religion that in many ways has long since transcended its Utah foundations and now has a majority of adherents outside of the United States, but in some ways remains centrally tethered to the church hierarchy in Salt Lake: which combination, Crabtree indirectly suggests, might partly account for the religion’s success. (H/T Gordon Smith at the Conglomerate, who has some quick comments of his own.)
Actually, Crabtree is trying to account for two quite different things – the success of the religion, on the one hand, and the personal and professional success of many of its most devout members, on the other. For the success of the religion, he points to Gary Becker’s competition account:
The most fashionable theory regarding religious success at the moment comes from economics, drawing on approaches developed by the University of Chicago’s Gary Becker. Becker, a sociologist and economist, argues that American church pews are kept full – while those in Europe empty out – because the US is unencumbered by religious monopolies (such as the Church of England or the Catholic Church), leaving plenty of room for competition and choice.
I don’t dispute that this is likely true. On the other hand, as with so many complicated social phenomena with which I am personally familiar, the reductionism conceals as much or more as it reveals. It’s not a population of bacteria, after all; affective social relations, in a long list of qualitative ways, profoundly condition all of this. It would perhaps be much better to start not with a “competition” theory that goes back to Marx and mostly rephrases it in contemporary econ-talk, but instead with the mechanisms by which social solidarity is built, the mechanisms by which social solidarity is built through the missionary experience particularly.
As to the success of Mormons as people in global society and particularly business, he observes:
[A]n investment banker in New York said, “I was at my final day of interviews at JPMorgan during my senior year in college. They took students from Princeton, Yale, Harvard, U-Penn and Brigham Young University [a Mormon university in Utah]. I was like, ‘what the hell? BYU?’ Then I slowly realised how many Mormons there are on Wall Street” … And at Harvard Business School, female students note ruefully that attractive male classmates are invariably associated with one of the “three Ms”: the military, the management consultancy McKinsey or Mormonism. In that complaint lies the conundrum: much of the US still sees Mormons as weirdly strait-laced at best, cultish at worst. Yet elite institutions are embracing them.
I don’t know enough about McKinsey to venture a view, but as to the other two, the military and Mormonism, let me hazard the extremely politically incorrect view that it has something to do with attraction to [added: hierarchically] disciplined masculinity. I have complicated views on Mormonism – starting from being a long-time Mormon dropout, raised very devoutly in the faith, and a missionary in the 1970s in Peru – but unlike many lapsed Mormons, I haven’t an anti-Mormon bone in my body. My extended family remains almost entirely active Mormon; I admire and respect the faith, but do not share the belief. I wrote about this in the Weekly Standard back during the Republican primary fight and the battle between Romney and Huckabee.
I attacked Huckabee for, well, many things, but particularly for channeling a certain Evangelical desire to excommunicate Mormons from public life – meaning by that, an observant Jew is okay as president, but a believing Mormon is not because Mormonism is a perversion or perhaps apostasy from true Christianity, or perhaps simply a pagan simulacrum of Christianity. And so, goes a certain strand of Evangelical thinking – I am not, of course, imputing this to all of Evangelicalism – Mormonism actively leads people astray, away from the true Christian faith in a way that is not true of non-Christian religions. I have harsh things to say about that line of thought and its implications for who can inhabit the public square. One passage prompted an email – out of a hundred or so angry emails – from an Evangelical pastor wondering whether the editors of the Weekly Standard quite understood that they had just published that rare thing, an entirely serious ‘imprecation’ in the formal sense, a prayer, a literal calling down of the wrath of heaven upon Huckabee and his kind. Well, yes, the Weekly Standard editors understood that perfectly.
But I then turned and attacked Romney for his stance on religion and the public square, as well. This was the time of the Romney “religion” speech – and we are almost certain to revisit this issue in the run-up to 2012 – in which he essentially put himself, his religion, and every religion, in every proposition, belief, doctrine, jot and tittle of faith, off limits from reasoned public inquiry. There is a lot that is right in that speech – but it also embraces the view that each “religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance.”
Is that always so? I doubt it, and I doubt very much that many serious Mormons believe it. I don’t mean this as unreflective sophmore skepticism. Sometimes a religion’s ‘unique doctrines’ are, and should be, bases for criticism, for reasoned criticism by unbelievers, and sometimes for inviting the believers to re-think their positions. And on some matters, about which there will be much debate, there will not be grounds for tolerance of whatsoever, if we are committed to some form of rule of reason rather than multiculturalism and relativism.
Again, there is much that is right in Romney’s speech. But the takeaway for him as a politician is the assertion quoted above. It was certainly a convenient stance for Romney – abortion, gay marriage, etc., all as much off-limits as funny Mormon underwear – and I sharply attacked it as conservative multiculturalism and conservative moral relativism. As I pointed out, this should be a problem for Catholics, Mormons, and Muslims, as a non-believing public seeks to figure out the extent and ways in which, as politicians or, say, president, they represent the people or God. If it didn’t raise problems, that would be merely to say that these religions and their adherents are not morally serious. Romney said repeatedly what John F. Kennedy said in his religion speech, he represented the people, not God, but at the same time Romney asked everyone to take his understandings of these deeply intertwined issues of morality and policy on … faith.
But of course, the problem is how to parse the difference between that which is acceptable for inquiry concerning someone who proposes to lead the polis and what is genuinely personal and irrelevant. My one regret is that the nasty fireworks at the beginning of that long essay tend to obscure the quite serious argument about how to draw those lines that occupies the second half. (It is not, by the way, a regret for having ridiculed the two principals – I think that it is important, actually, for people to understand the affective side of this and not pretend that it is purely mild cognition, and that was one way to do it.) But this issue is going to resurface, certainly with Romney, and with others. The problem, at its most general, is that religion bears certain characteristics of immutable characteristics, like race or ethnicity – marks of identity that one could not change about oneself, but which – again, like skin color – are morally irrelevant, and so cannot, by themselves, be cause for either accepting or rejecting a person as a political leader in a liberal society.
But religion also has a cognitive content – including doctrines – that are and should be subject to reasoned discussion. The believer who partakes of them as doctrines of faith might not do that, and might not be able to do that, almost by definition. Yet it would also be a mistake to draw too sharp a line between things subject to human reason and things not of this world and so not subject to human reason; particularly law-based religions partake of both. Mormonism, for that matter, incorporates this directly into its prophetic traditions And despite being a thoroughly lapsed Mormon, and so not in the sense that I would presume instruct Mormons on the doctrines of their faith, but rather as a descriptive statement that I do not believe that the elders of the Church would regard it as an accurate statement of the faith, though of course I might well be corrected on that – I would say that Romney’s statement on this matter is not particularly an accurate reflection of Mormon doctrine. Mormon doctrine regarding human reason is not, so far as I have been able to comprehend, “relativistic” in the sense used in contemporary ethical argument, even if it is more elastic some (including me) would accept.
But irrespective of whether believers are able to participate in the discussion of human reason and prophetic traditions, when adherents go out to offer leadership in the broader political community, then the unbelievers are perfectly warranted to ask that they be discussed in terms that are accessible to public discussion. Note two things, however. This is a different question from whether a person who is voting – not offering to be fiduciary, an agent of trust, for the public as a whole, a political leader for the whole people – has such an obligation to deal solely in public reasons. I rather doubt that as an ethical proposition, but I’ll leave that aside here. Second, regular readers might wonder whether this insistence upon public reason is not at odds with some of the critical remarks I have made on this blog regarding “deliberative democracy,” since it takes as part of its writ a commitment to public reasons. Again, too large for this discussion, but the short answer is that the problem is not public reason for public trustees, but instead my view that what is called “deliberative democracy,” as in, for example, Democracy and Disagreement, insists far too much on a set of specific normative outcomes than a “meta” theory can possibly sustain. But I will leave that aside as well. Crucial to this discussion is the assumption that we here talk of those proposing themselves as leaders of a democratic polity, fiduciaries and agents of trust. We can insist that they discuss their ethical views in ways that, even if they ultimately appeal to their communalist beliefs, are at a minimum asserted as that so that all can judge, but also so that the rest of us can make up our minds.
What Romney’s religion speech did, however, was to take the tack adopted by some Muslim intellectuals and their defenders, but it has lots of antecedents among minority religions in American debates over politics and the public square – to challenge any demand to have a reasoned discussion of tenets of the faith as racism or something like its equivalent. What, after all, is the quickest way of ending a discussion about this or that religious practice that might be questioned – not to discuss the practice, or even to defend it as a legitimate accommodation to religion as such – but instead to suggest that questioning “the Other” is to show oneself to be racist, prejudiced, etc., so to end the “discussion.” Romney put his religion out of bounds – all of it – on roughly the same grounds. Of course he didn’t say racist or anything like that – but the effect of his position was an exercise in classic political correctness – not precisely, you can’t say that, but instead, you can’t ask me about that.
That can’t possibly be right, and anyone in Romney’s camp who thinks that it is should ask themselves whether they would accept that for a moment when, say, a Muslim says that this or that is required by God – honor killing, for example, or stoning an adulterous woman – end of discussion. More exactly, a Muslim candidate for Congress or President or something like that – and the rest of us would like to know more precisely where said candidate stands on some fundamental issues of the status of women, consent in marriage, etc. And even more fundamentally – a perfectly legitimate question of any serious religious person, what is the ultimate source of authority to which one responds when acting as fiduciary for “We, the People”?
Obviously it could be any religion or really any belief system. My point is to pick one where a conservative Republican is unlikely to agree on the grounds of the moral relativism that, however, Romney’s speech at a couple of crucial junctures demands. However inconvenient for Romney having to answer at least some questions as to the demands of his faith, that is what an engagement with reasoned toleration – rather than multiculturalism or relativism – demands in a liberal society. The rest of the article sets out criteria for what should be available for question and what not. Because the crucial question is to offer a basis for saying, yes, we really are going to ask about abortion because you are a serious Catholic, and we are going to ask you about jihad because you are a serious Muslim. What we should ask one person or another about religious commitments that might run contrary to the agency for the public varies with the person and the seriousness of their religious commitments and exactly what they are, and the seriousness with which the religion itself takes them, and finally with the extent to which it is a function of their fiduciary obligation to “We, the People.” And, yes, they will vary according to context and familiarity; I think it is perfectly okay to ask Mormons, Catholics, and pro-life Evangelicals about abortion, whereas I think the Mormon Church has done by now more than enough to establish that it no longer sanctions polygamy. The touchstone, however, is that we are entitled to know that the person will act as our fiduciary, our agent.
I raise this in part here because articles such as Crabtree’s remind us that these questions are not going away as 2012 approaches. And, more broadly, the nature of integration of American Muslims into public political life is going to require something a lot better than “outreach” and “dialogue” and process-pablum that avoid the real questions. If grounds for saying what questions are in and what questions are out with respect to religious tenets and duties to God in relation to duties to people are not specified, then the mere fact that one dare not publicly ask questions means merely that questions won’t be asked publicly. American elites in both parties seem to assume that the traditional difference between how Americans see the role of religion in the public square, versus, say established secularism or established Christianity, will automatically give the United States a different outcome from Europe on these vexed questions. That seems quite short sighted and wrong, not to mention foolishly self-congratulatory. On the contrary, the multicultural dogmas that the United States shares with Western Europe predominate, and unless profoundly altered, doom any better accommodation along traditional American religious exceptionalism.
It is a crucial mechanism that the United States has to get right(er), and avoid the ways in which Europe has got it wrong, if it seeks to have the traditional American resolution of religion and public life as Muslims, Mormons, and other faiths seek a place within the demos and the polis. For this reason, I would certainly urge Romney’s advisors to do a fundamental re-think of his too-easy out last time around. (The comments from some of the Romney team when the article appeared suggested that it had been too long for them to read; they took it as an anti-Romney screed and seemed only interested, and deeply confused, as to where that left the Weekly Standard in a pure political sense, as though that were the point.)
Finally, let me add with reference to Crabtree’s article that a crucial ingredient in Mormonism’s current global success and growth as a religion lies in … ironically and paradoxically … the fact that the Federal government invested Utah and the Mormon church in what was, in many respects, an act of naked imperialism. It locked Mormonism into a Weberian “iron cage” that imposed outside barriers upon its wilder and stranger practices – plural marriage above all. It was brutal. It was unjust and not exactly a nod toward religious accommodation. But, seen historically, it had the effect of forcing Mormonism to re-think its relation to the rest of the country and eventually the rest of the world. It broke Mormonism beyond its strange and parochial boundaries. But, note, to its ultimate benefit.
It both forced it, in other words, but also allowed it, to find a new institutional settlement with respect to the rest of society and the place of a still somewhat weird religious group in the world, but not of it. I rather doubt that would have happened had the influences of today’s multiculturalism and fashionable relativism allowed 19th century Utah to wall itself off far more thoroughly from the rest of American society. I suspect it would be isolated in something like the way the Amish are isolated to this day. This is deeply problematic, of course, because taken as such, the observation is that coercive measures to which religious adherents would not consent – including the ripping apart of polygamous families in the 19th century and breaking into the sacred spaces of the Mormon temple in Salt Lake – might ultimately redound to the religion’s benefit by remaking parts of it. It raises the unattractive possibility, I acknowledge, that this is merely a proposal to destroy the village in order to save it.
Yet one has to be willing to get beyond pure relativism and embrace some notion of toleration based on reason, including reasoned disagreement, within a broader society. The peculiar part is that Mormonism as a religion has long since done so; it has long since accepted the judgments of duly constituted political authority, and has joined with the broad consensus, however hard the road to get there. The problem, on this particular matter, is actually a problem of Romney wanting a special political fix for himself and his campaign. He needs to give it up in campaign 2.0 – people might not have been able to articulate exactly why they thought he had announced he wanted to have his cake and eat it too in his 2007 speech, but the American public thought that of the speech, however inchoately.
Crabtree’s interviewees, like all of my devout Mormon extended family, have zero desire to return to the faith of 19th century Utah days. They have no nostalgia that I can detect. The religion has moved on, followers and leaders. They are modern and contemporary, and even if they don’t believe in, to take one example, feminism the way, say, that the legal academy does, they have internalized a huge amount of that and more of the broader culture and can’t see any reason that it should be seen as contradictory to the faith. It is partly the adherence to a disciplined tradition that gives its appeal; it is also partly that the tradition is not what it was in the time when Brigham Young ruled the intermountain West that makes it possible to go out to the rest of the world. A religion that could indeed go out and make converts across the world was incubated in an iron cage of American society that did not tolerate all aspects of even deep-seated belief. Parts of it that might have been thought uniquely to characterize the faith – polygamy – turned out to be not so immutable, after all.
(I have some hesitation about opening this to comments, as these topics seem to elicit much weirdness; I would ask people to be thoughtful in what they say. Actually, I’m going to try something different – I’m going to open it to comments, but not for twenty four hours and I will consider pruning comments I see not just as rude, but unresponsive to the topic. Frankly, I would prefer if you only comment having read the full Weekly Standard piece, to the end, that is mostly under discussion above.)
(I’ve made a few changes, added a graf, and am opening it to comments. Thanks to Glenn for the Instalanche. However, please bear in mind that intriguing as the “disciplined masculinity” sentence might be that Glenn referenced, it is not the subject of this post. I’ll try to put up something on that later – but comments here are limited to the issues raised by religion in the public square. I will freely delete anything that seems to me off-topic.)
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