Navigating the Theological Minefields

Okay, it is getting a little strange on the Republican side of things, or stranger than ever. Rick Santorum is breaking away from the pack – Mitt Romney is worried and Newt Gingrich is old news, not mentioned much at all and, very oddly for him, not saying much at all, save for stuff like this:

Speaking at a town hall-style event at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, Newt Gingrich mocked the Obama Administration’s promotion of smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles. “Let me start from a simple premise that Oklahomans will understand: you cannot put a gun rack in a Volt,” Gingrich said.

Actually you probably can – but Newt can’t resist a zinger. And Newt can’t avoid the tidal wave of insignificance coming his way. He won’t be happy about that, but now he’ll have only Callista to listen to his whining about what might have been, or should have been, or whatever. The media will have moved on. Ah well, the two of them can visit Tiffany’s again, and stay at the Plaza a few feet away, and maybe take a carriage ride through Central Park right there. There are worse things than not being president. Others have survived that just fine. Newt will get over it – but not just yet. He’ll make a bit more noise, somehow. He just got another ten million dollars to play with – from Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas and Macau casino magnate who also finances Netanyahu and the Likud folks in Israel, hoping someone who he’s purchased will nuke Iran and also eliminate the Palestinian people. And ten million is chump change to Adelson.

But it’s Santorum who is on a roll, with a President’s Day weekend of oddly bold statements – all that talk about Obama’s “phony theology” and how Obama’s policies are all pragmatic and practical but obviously not at all based on the Bible. Obama’s healthcare law mandates coverage for contraception services, and everyone knows that contraception is evil, and even though Obama told the Catholic bishops they didn’t have to pay for that for their lay employees at their universities and hospitals, Santorum says even allowing contraception to exist is spitting in the eye of all Christians, who have a doctrinal and moral obligation to have nothing to do with contraception at all. Actually it’s not all Christians, just all Catholics – and not really all Catholics, just the Church hierarchy, as almost all Catholics use various forms of birth control. Santorum generalizes a bit, and has pulled his party in on this – providing contraceptive family-planning services is an assault on religious freedom you see, and unconstitutional, and looks a lot like the work of a godless dictator who hates religion. At least that seems to be the idea, and Santorum is on a roll here. He went on to argue pre-natal care, if it involves what is called screening, so you will know if your baby will be born with any problems you need to consider, invariably leads to abortions – so, in the name of God, that too must be stopped.

Yes, he was on a roll, but he saved the best for last – “Rick Santorum on Monday denied he was comparing President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler while using a World War II analogy the previous day.” But wink-wink nudge-nudge of course he was doing just that. And all of the Republican Party – or at least the base – was gleeful. See Santorum Crushing GOP Hopefuls in Texas and Santorum Leading by Wide Margins in Texas and Oklahoma and Santorum Opens Up Double-Digit National Lead Over Romney and so on. Pissed-off people who want a Christian theocracy and be done with it were in heaven, so to speak. And the party establishment, such as it is, was appalled – as pissed-off people who want a Christian theocracy constitutes a small sliver of the electorate. This could be disaster:

There are growing calls for an alternative to Mitt Romney as the Republican standard-bearer, with the names of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie again being seen as the most likely saviors.

Santorum is a boutique candidate, Gingrich is just too impossible (and Ron Paul is Ron Paul) and it looks as if Mitt Romney might well lose the primary in his home state of Michigan, where his father was the very popular governor way back when – because everyone now sees Romney as the most plastic and awkward and inauthentic political candiaiate the nation has ever produced. Mitt isn’t even any good at being Mitt. The party despises him and the nation is learning to. So there must be an alternative. But that’s not to be – “While most Republicans wish they had different choices in the party’s presidential field, a nationwide USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds overwhelming resistance to the idea of an old-styled brokered convention that would pick some new contender as the nominee.”

So much for that – this is the field. And Santorum is on a roll because he thinks that pissed-off people who want a Christian theocracy are the key here. They will propel him to the presidency.

But Steve Kornacki suggests things are a bit more complicated than that:

For decades, the center of power in the Republican Party has been shifting southward, and the concentration of evangelical Christians within the party has been rising. So there’s some irony in the fact that as a series of crucial primaries in southern states approaches, the GOP race has, at least for now, become a two-man fight between a Mormon from Massachusetts and a Roman Catholic from Pennsylvania.

And one of them has been here before:

That Mitt Romney faces particular suspicion from the evangelical voters who have come to dominate southern Republican politics is old news. In his 2008 campaign, the former Massachusetts governor tried to run as the right’s default non-John McCain choice, a strategy that made Dixie crucial to his efforts. But in one southern state after another, Romney lagged badly among evangelicals (many of whom flocked to Mike Huckabee), preventing him from posting the breakout victories he badly needed. And so far in this campaign, polls suggest that the South remains unusually hostile to – or at least skeptical of – Romney.

So some interesting dynamics are at play here:

The bulk of southern evangelicals are Baptists and Pentecostals, who tend to be extra-resistant to the idea that the Mormon and Christian faiths are at all compatible and who may be extra-reluctant to vote for a candidate they consider so fundamentally different from them. As Robert Jeffress, the Texas Baptist leader who has called Mormonism “a theological cult,” put it a few months ago, “to those of us who are evangelicals, when all other things are equal, we prefer competent Christians to competent non-Christians who may be good, moral people like Mitt Romney.”

Ouch! And the upcoming primaries are Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Rick Santorum can clean up. But there’s his northern Catholic background, and Kornacki argues that Santorum isn’t the kind of guy southern evangelicals would really cotton to:

So far, Santorum’s success has been limited to the Midwest, where he’s won contests in Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado. But in South Carolina, he netted just 17 percent – good for a very distant third place – and in Florida he finished with 13 percent. In both states, evangelicals were more interested in Newt Gingrich, a Catholic convert who at least has southern political roots, than Santorum. And now that he (or, more precisely, the super PAC that’s aligned with him) is armed with another $10 million of Sheldon Adelson’s money, Gingrich poses a threat to Santorum’s southern hopes. If evangelicals really are more comfortable with the former House speaker and see him as viable, it could split the conservative vote throughout the South and open the door for Romney to win states with well under 50 percent of the vote.

These things get complicated. Specific theology matters. Yes, you have a Mormon and two Catholics. But one Catholic is crazed by his fear and loathing of icky sexual stuff – see historian Nancy L. Cohen’s new book Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America for some perspective on why that works so well these days – and the other Catholic is financed by the guy who wants to save Israel, and the world, from all Islamic peoples – also a popular notion in some circles.

Kornacki thinks this is why Santorum decided to attack Obama’s “phony theology” last weekend:

Santorum also suggested that Obama practices a different form of Christianity and, in a separate weekend appearance, talked up the virtues of home-schooling. In a way, this was Santorum delivering a simple message to conservative evangelicals: I’m one of you. And it’s the kind of rhetoric that Romney, who has been trying to keep one eye on the general election, isn’t nearly as comfortable employing.

And that may work:

Gingrich’s success in South Carolina and the Florida panhandle suggests that Catholicism by itself isn’t enough to keep southern evangelicals from viewing a candidate as a “true” conservative. Santorum has the added obstacle of his northern roots, but there’s reason to believe he could run well – very well – in the Deep South in March. He’ll need to retain his viability (meaning no meltdown in Michigan) between now and then, but if he does, the red meat he tossed out this weekend should be very helpful.

It’s all in the way you pick your way through the theological minefields.

But then there are other considerations:

A good deal of the excitement over the recent contraception coverage mandate has resulted from the hopes of Republicans, and the fears of some Catholic liberals, that the controversy could prove to be a “wedge issue” that would drive significant numbers of Catholic voters into the GOP column in November.

The assumption behind such scenarios, of course, is that there is a self-conscious “Catholic vote” that operates independently of the rest of the electorate, and that can be moved by the pronouncements of Catholic religious leaders.

That’s Ed Kilgore, who argues in his latest column for the New Republic that this is a myth:

Several prominent Catholic liberals were quick to point out that Obama would lose the Catholic vote and seriously damage his re-election prospects. But as Republican politicians gleefully piled on, the evidence for such a dire development – and indeed, for the continued existence of anything you could describe as a “Catholic vote” – has diminished almost daily.

Of course, the White House responded to the Catholic Bishops’ furor with a deft maneuver that changed the political dynamics of the issue, offering a compromise that allowed the cost of contraception coverage to be borne by insurance companies, not the religiously-affiliated institutions themselves. This step won immediate praise from the leadership of the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Charities, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. But the split among Catholic elites simply reinforced the more fundamental reality: American Catholics are hardly monolithic, even on issues supposedly touching on the Church’s authority and teachings.

Polling of Americans on the contraception mandate controversy has produced significantly varying results, often depending on when the poll was taken and question wording and order. But no survey has shown a significant difference between Catholics and other voters on this issue.

The rest of the column covers the polling data – it is dry and dreary wonk stuff, but clear as a bell:

Conservatives often argue that support for the hierarchy’s positions is much higher among “real Catholics” – meaning those who attend Mass weekly. That’s true, but it’s not a phenomenon particular to Catholics. According to the PRRI survey, for example, support for legalized abortion varies inversely according to frequency of worship service attendance among evangelical and mainline Protestants, as well as among Catholics. Moreover, Catholics who disagree with the Church’s position on hot-button issues do not seem to be suffering from any misinformation about Church teachings (72 percent of white Catholics say they’ve heard about abortion from the pulpit) or from a bad conscience about their disagreements. Again according to PRRI, 68 percent of Catholics think you can still be a “good Catholic” while disagreeing with Church teachings on abortion, and 74 percent say the same about same-sex marriage.

The more you look at the numbers, the idea that there is some identifiable Catholic vote in America, ready to be mobilized, begins to fade towards irrelevance. In the 2000, 2004, and 2008 presidential elections, Catholics voted within a couple of percentage points of the electorate as a whole. It’s notable that both the Democratic vice president and the Republican Speaker of the House are Catholics – and that few Americans are likely aware of that fact.

There is no wedge issue here. No wedge is available. It seems most Catholics in America vaguely note what the Bishops say that the Pope has said, and nod, and then continue to do what they damned well please – and they still call themselves Catholics. As Kilgore says – “The Catholic Vote looks just like America.”

And Kilgore cites Craig Gilbert in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel who addressed the same issue and reaching the same conclusion:

Yes, the sizable “Catholic vote” in Wisconsin is slightly more Republican than the electorate at large, but that’s because it is overwhelmingly white (compared to the Catholic population nationally with its large and growing Latino minority). As Gilbert shows, white Catholic voters break down much as white voters generally do in the major battleground states.

So there is no wedge and there is no minefield. And there’s Stephen S. Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, who offers this for CNN:

The idea of a Catholic bloc is patently ridiculous. As voters, American Catholics mirror the electorate as a whole, divided into Democrats, independents, and Republicans at about the same percentages as all Americans. And it’s hard to trace such political complexity to religious allegiance.

The Pope and the Bishops talk, or literally pontificate, and Schneck points out that Catholic voters seem to shrug. The willingness strictly to obey religious leaders on moral issues has being fading away:

88% of Catholics in the [CNN] poll said that it’s OK for Catholics to make up their own minds about these moral issues. That represents a growing trend. In 1992 only 70% supported the “make up their own minds” argument. In 1999 it was 80%.

Today’s Catholics are picky and even suspicious about political signals from the institutional church.

Kilgore then fills in the details:

Schneck does observe there are subcultures of Catholic voters who are worth paying distinctive attention to: most obviously, Latino Catholics, but also “intentional Catholics” more likely to actively embrace Church teachings, and “cultural Catholics” who tend to be somewhat more culturally conservative than other voters, but also more “populist” on economic issues.

But the days when – to cite one leading example – there was a vast gulf in the political affiliations of German Catholics and Protestants of relatively similar circumstances are long gone. Voters who happen to be Catholic are affected by the same sorts of cross-currents affecting other voters – but not so much by their distinctive religious tradition.

And Joanne Kenen suggests here that 2012 could be the year of the “birth-control mom” – mobilized by Republican attacks on access to contraception. Once you get past the theological minefields, and adjust your campaign to account for what the Catholic Bishops say in relation to what practicing Catholics actually do about it, and assess how to account for how key voters feel about Mormons, and how key voters feel about icky nasty sexual stuff as explained by the one Catholic candidate, or how we have to do what Israel (Jesus Land) says we must do as explained by the other Catholic candidate – well, then there are the birth-control moms to deal with. This isn’t easy.

It’s no wonder that the Republicans want some other White Knight candidate now. But Ben Adler says that’s not to be:

This is silly because no candidate exists who would be simultaneously more acceptable to the Republican base and independents than both Romney and Santorum. And if he did, he’d be a fool to sign on for this unpleasant adventure.

The candidates whose names are being tossed out as options – Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush – have plenty of potential liabilities. Daniels has been fined for drug possession. His marital history is complicated, although at least on the surface it’s much more sympathetic than, say, Newt Gingrich’s. He also was director of the Office of Management and Budget back when George W. Bush was running up the budget deficit, something Republicans claim to have been upset by at the time, although we know they are lying. Perhaps, like having supported an individual mandate in healthcare reform, it could become an ex post facto disqualification.

Chris Christie, who has already endorsed Romney, has taken a stance against Islamophobia, a position that offends many conservatives. Meanwhile, his angry, abrasive shtick might play badly among soccer mom swing voters.

Jeb Bush is the brother of former President George W. Bush. I don’t think that point requires further illumination.

And why would any of them want to jump in now?

To have their histories pored over, to spend days raising money and rushing to put together a campaign only to risk embarrassment? Since it’s no longer possible for a new entrant to win the nomination outright, the reward would merely be winning enough delegates to force a fight at the convention. If these candidates couldn’t be persuaded to accept the hassles of a Republican primary when it was winnable, why would any of them do so now?

Republicans should come to grips with the fact that the nominee is going to be one of the remaining, unappealing candidates.

And they’ll have to pick their way across the theological minefields all on their own. Or maybe it’s all very simple, as Steve M. points out here:

I’m not sure what would have happened if Mitt Romney weren’t in the race as the guy most observers believed couldn’t be beaten, but at this point base voters are so disgusted by Romney’s transcendent phoniness that they’re seeking out his polar opposite: the guy in the race who’s most sincerely far-right, lack of charisma be damned.

Gingrich had them going for a while, and he even got a do-over for his apostasy on the Paul Ryan budget, but he’s not getting a do-over on attacking Romney’s business career from the left, on his ties to Freddie Mac, and on his marital history. The phonier Romney gets, the purer the base wants the anti-Romney to be.

If Santorum had dropped out early and Michele Bachmann had stayed in the race, I think Bachmann would be the front-runner right now, even if she’d said all kinds of loopy things. It’s all about sincerity, as part of a backlash to the most insincere guy who ever lived.

But what happens if you’re sincere about nonsense? In a race the Republicans have made a race all about True Religion – which no one can define to anyone else’s satisfaction – even sincerity will not get you across the theological minefields in one piece.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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