What We Get When We Talk About Religion and Politics

I found this piece by Frank Bruni in Saturday’s New York Times to be interesting in several respects.  One of Bruni’s claims is that we have not yet really tried to explain the various character flaws and other personality quirks that we (by which I mean the Times writers) see in Mitt Romney by reference to his religious background.  It is important that we do this, says Bruni.  So, for example, we should try to understand Romney’s “muffled soul” by engaging in some extended religious psychology about Mormonism.  Here’s a bit from Bruni:

One longtime Republican strategist I talked with predicted that Gingrich would broach Romney’s Mormonism yet, with the aim of mobilizing the Mormon-wary evangelicals who vote in southern primaries on March 6, “Super Tuesday.”

That’s a regrettable motive. But there are valid reasons for the rest of us to home in on Romney’s religion, not in terms of its historical eccentricities but in terms of its cultural, psychological and emotional imprint on him.

His aloofness, guardedness and sporadic defensiveness: are these entwined with the experience of belonging to a minority tribe that has often been maligned and has operated in secret? Do his stamina and resilience as a candidate reflect his years of Mormon missionary work in France, during which he learned not to be daunted in the face of so much resistance that he won a mere 10 to 20 converts . . . .

And what of his sometimes huffy expectation that voters accept his current stances against abortion and gun control, to name two flips, and stop fussing over so many contrary positions in the past? Does that track with Mormonism’s blithe reluctance, according to its critics, to explain controversial tenets that it has jettisoned, like a ban on black clergy members that was in place until 1978?

I’ve noted before that I am increasingly skeptical that encouraging the drawing of these connections is worthwhile — that the rhetoric of “talking” about religion in these contexts is at all helpful.  Bruni’s column does little to dissuade me from that view.  Just as it would be inappropriate to understand, say, Secretary of HHS Kathleen Sebelius’s decisions to do away with conscience protections on the ground that she is a lapsed Catholic with a deep-seated animus toward the Catholic Church based on some strategically chosen anecdotes about her early upbringing which, it is claimed, illuminate her “muffled soul” for the voting public to see in its full journalistic nakedness, and to draw a general connection between lapsed Catholics and support for the HHS mandate, so, too, ought it be inappropriate in this case. 

More generally, though, this is precisely the sort of low-level partisan psychologizing that we are likely to get by imagining that we can explain personality flaws on the basis of religious association.  Aloofness?  Well, sure, that’s a Mormon trait.  Opportunistic waffling on the issues, coupled with inexplicable indignation?  Yes, Mormons do that.  It’s part of their psychology, you see.  And if you pay attention closely enough, we the press will bare a person’s soul to you.  We will explain them to you by recourse to their religious commitments, all the while reinforcing our (and, now, your) suspicions about them.  I think this is a mistake, but perhaps one which ought to have been predictable to those who advocate greater public discourse about religion.  To be clear, I am proud to be part of that group.  But increasingly I see definite costs to that approach, too.

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