An American Religion

In Tampa a few weeks ago twenty thousand Republicans bowed their heads and listened solemnly to the Mormon Ken Hutchins offer a prayer.  They applauded a string of Mormons who stood to bear witness to Mitt Romney’s service in his Mormon congregation.  Historically speaking, this was remarkable.  A century and a half ago, after all, this same party’s convention denounced Mormonism for being as barbaric as slavery. 

On the face of it the Republican convention of 2012 seems a microcosm of modern American religious tolerance.  In the Mormon Mitt Romney and the Catholic Paul Ryan the GOP has, after all, crafted their first presidential ticket since the Civil War without a Protestant.   But digging deeper reveals a different story: America has adapted less to these religions than they have adapted themselves to America.  The real story of Mormonism in this election season is not one of the Latter-day Saints alone, but rather about the ways in which the polarities of American political culture have insistently tugged American religions into their orbit

The deeper premise here is the same that much of American Protestantism has shared since the Revolutionary War: that religion can be expressed through the structures and language of American politics.  Christianity, according to these assumptions, is compatible with and even reliant upon the classical liberalism of American individualism, can be enacted in laws, and supports the principles of democratic government.  Though its advocates often invoke the will of God to argue for their positions, they tend to speak of those positions in the language and frameworks of American politics – what should be legal or illegal in American law, taught or not taught in American schools, sponsored or not sponsored by the government.

So tightly binding religion to the presumptions of individualism and democracy that underlay American politics makes Americans suspicious of religions that don’t seem to subscribe to those presumptions. Both Mormonism and Catholicism spent a great deal of time in the nineteenth century butting heads with government and warding off, with mixed success, mobs worried that their faithful were unfit for participation in American government.  In some ways those fears were true.  Mormons in the nineteenth century routinely engaged in bloc voting, because their religion taught them that communal solidarity and obedience to the prophetic voices of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were more important than the rugged individualism of Jacksonian democracy.  Similarly, throughout the nineteenth century Catholic prelates in the Vatican claimed over and over that their faithful in America should indeed hearken to the leadership of the pope.  Well into the twentieth century, both John F. Kennedy and Mitt Romney struggled with the fears these things evoked.

But the Democrats nominated Kennedy, and he won, and the Republicans have nominated Romney, and hope he will.  These men overcame these fears primarily because they, and their fellow believers, have adopted an essentially Protestant relationship between religion and politics. Kennedy famously spurned the pope (in a speech to Protestant ministers, no less) that his faith did not speak for him on political issues – even issues Catholic leadership might think to be religious. Mormons abandoned their nineteenth century aspirations to a political kingdom in Utah and spent much of the twentieth century emphasizing personal responsibility, hard work, and moral discipline – those aspects of their faith which bring them into conversation with American political culture.  Many Mormons happily commute to work in Salt Lake City and Provo, only vaguely remembering, if at all, a time when their leaders dreamed of a separatist theocratic economic community in the West, far distant from the corrupting elements of burgeoning nineteenth century consumer capitalism and the unreliable mob-driven tides of American democracy. Today Mitt Romney barely imagines that there might be any reason why his faith and his nation might come into conflict.

The media’s sudden interest in Mormonism and the regular airing of the Mormon church’s odder laundry that followed obscured the most important thing about Mormonism – how like other American religions it has become. When Hutchins thanked God for “freedoms that bless us with the capacity to live and worship according to the dictates of our conscience,” the camera caught Republicans nodding.  By the twenty-first century Catholics and evangelicals and Mormons alike could all join in affirmation of individual liberty, and finally understand the phrase to mean something similar.


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