Mike Huckabee, Pope Francis, and the Rise of Mother Manners

Mike Huckabee, Pope Francis, and the Rise of Mother Manners January 30, 2015

It seems a terrible waste in a man whose name is basically a dirty limerick waiting to be written, but Mike Huckabee frowns on cussing. On an Iowa radio program, after assuring listeners that “In the South, or in the Midwest, there in Iowa, you would not have people who would just throw the F-bomb and use gratuitous profanity in a professional setting,” the former Arkansas governor confided: “In New York, not only do the men do it, but the women do it.”

The National Review’s Katherine Timpf, along with many other commentators, found Huckabee’s apparent singling out of women sexist – and I’m inclined to agree. But Timpf’s objection is much bigger than that. “Do we really want Mother Manners as the president?” She asks.

I am completely on her side here, so I hate to break the news. If we define Mother Manners broadly as a busybody, someone with an opinion on everything under the sun and little restraint about when, where, and how to express it, I have a powerful suspicion that her style will become the Next Big Thing in leadership.

One case in point is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In 1998, the former Istanbul mayor became the bad boy of Turkish politics when he was sentenced to jail for inciting religious hatred. Since then, Erdoğan has served 11 years as prime minister; this past August, he was elected to the presidency. Never camera-shy, he’s gone on record claiming Muslims discovered America while denying they would stoop to genocide in Sudan. In May of 2014, he punched a protester.

But Erdoğan’s crowning Mother Manners moment came later that year, during a walking tour of Istanbul, when he espied a man smoking in a café. “It is prohibited to smoke [indoors]. He is publicly smoking in an indoor area. Has he no shame?” Erdoğan cried, and went on both to rebuke the man directly and send for the police.

It would be a gross overstatement to call Pope Francis his kindred spirit, but there is a very distant family resemblance. True, the Supreme Pontiff has never punched anyone, except once, in pantomime. His public call-outs, somewhat like Huckabee’s, are directed at categories of people, rather than at individuals. Nevertheless, they are becoming too numerous to catalog.

Any pope might be expected to have strong opinions on subjects like freedom of expression or family planning, but Francis has a way of phrasing them in imprecise language and tossing them off in informal settings. This is the same approach he employs in dispensing advice on more prudential matters, as when he urges nuns to be more chipper or fathers to play with their children, and the effect is one of meddling over-familiarity. Francis is the CEO who sticks his head into cubicles with a big, friendly grin, and writes up employees for eating Chee-tos.

Whether or not we like their styles or approve of their decisions, Francis and Erdoğan are both responding to real crises of legitimacy. Long second-guessed by the judiciary and overshadowed by the military, Turkey’s executive leadership has never been able to rest easy for long. In order to be taken seriously – in order to make sure that everyone gets the point — Erdoğan has got to impose his will in all matters, great and small.

Meanwhile, as Benedict, Francis’ predecessor, learned to his sorrow, the office of pope no longer commands deference, even among Catholics. Among non-Catholics, a pope is lucky if he can escape being hooted down. If popes want respect, then – like presidents of relatively new, putsch-prone republics – they must roll up their sleeves and fight for it.

Some Catholic critics, including Michael Brendan Dougherty and Fr. Mark Pilon, have argued that there’s no need for any pope to enjoy such a high profile. The bishops can manage the Church just fine by themselves. In principle, they could be right. But, as anyone who’s ever polled Catholics informally knows, confidence in bishops is running low. This disaffection may be nothing new, but the new media are new, and they’re giving the disaffected such a platform as they’ve never known before.

Far from encouraging any sense of proportion, these media work like a giant magnifying glass. They distort trivial — or at any rate, local — disputes until they swell into Churchwide moral panics. What’s that? Your pastor gives boring homilies? He doesn’t like the Latin Mass? Aux armes, citoyens! As no bishops have stepped up to soothe the mob with a whiff of grapeshot, it’s hard to fault Francis for doing so.

If anything can be said against Francis, it’s that he has adapted to these media a little too well. By claiming a global purview, by treating everything in it as though it were of equal importance, by tossing off soundbytes, he has made himself the constable of the global village. If it matters, he continues to poll spectacularly well. For many people worldwide, Mother Manners is a man on horseback.

It would probably be a stretch to suggest that Mike Huckabee is casting himself consciously in the same mold. But I do think he’s responding to a real demand for on-the-spot micromanaging. These past few weeks, we’ve been buried under reports about left-wing activists marshaling mobs to badger outliers into abject submission. Often, what touches off these mini-Gordon Riots isn’t ideology per se, but points of etiquette that febrile minds read as evidence of systemic bias. A group of UCLA students denounced their professor for insisting that the first “i” in “indigenous” be written in lowercase.

We now live in a country where people are willing to go to the barricades over grammar. Our cultural consensus has collapsed that far. To restore any kind of sanity or sense of security, preaching a homily against swearing, as Huckabee did, might be far too little, far too late. I’m not saying I want a Mother Manners, but plenty of people, whether they realize it or not, are practically wailing for one.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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