On Thursday, I highlighted what I see to be a dilemma for evangelical voters when it comes to Mitt Romney. Either we ignore his Mormonism and so deepen the divide between the sacred and secular, or we discuss it and run the risk of getting accused of have a religious litmus test (as Prufrock claims is true of anyone who raises “the Mormon question” ).
In a lengthy response, John Schroeder at Article6 points out that in our new media age, these discussions quickly reach the “lowest common denominator.” In other words, regardless of how careful we are in our attempts to identify how the Mormon religion might affect Mitt Romney’s worldview–and consequently, his policy–such attempts could be abused by others. As John writes, “their defense of discussing religion in the public square will be pull-quoted by someone out there as permission to say the obviously bigoted statement, “Mormons are fools and you cannot vote for one!”
If I understand it, John’s argument rests upon a distinction between the halls of academia, where these sorts of questions are appropriate, and the political realm where the potential for abuse makes the imprudent.
That’s a fair argument to make, even if it (a) is slightly slanted against the general public and (b) ignores the potentially positive benefits to the new media, the fact that by engaging the public in the discussion blogs and new media potentially change the terms under which the discussion occurs. When one blog pulls quotes badly, there are a thousand willing to point it out.
In other words, it is an argument that views the new media through an old media lens. I’m not sure that’s right.
But more to the point, if the argument that such claims are dangerous, then why not make that argument rather than claim bigotry? I’m left wondering–and perhaps the Article6 guys have addressed this and I missed it–what constitutes bigotry at all. While John started his comments with (rightly) pointing out that we need a criterion for identifying when we can talk about religion’s influence on politics, he then takes that offering away:
In other words, save it for seminary. To my mind, because our politics, if not our society, is definitionally and constitutionally secular, this does make any discussion of the miracle claims of any religion off-limits in the political public square. And since most religion is established in its miracle claims, it puts religion pretty far out of bounds to begin with. To do otherwise would abrogate the freedom of individual religion that is as deeply held by our constitution as its secular nature.
In other words, the correct time to discuss the particular ways in which a given religion might affect a political worldview is….never. While I share his position that defending the miraculous is more important than defending Christian miracles, the claims of any particular religion extend beyond the strictly miraculous. And while there will certainly be significant disagreement over what effects of a particular tenet of a religion on a policy might be, that doesn’t mean that that tenet will have no effect on policy.
John and Lowell might be correct that if “the Mormon question” is allowed to go forward it will come to dominate the campaign in an unhealthy fashion. That would be a travesty indeed. But that doesn’t mean the question isn’t valid, and it’s not clear that valid questions shouldn’t be asked, even if they are dangerous.