Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Protestant, A Mormon and Two Catholics Walk into an Election...

One of the most interesting things about this presidential campaign is how little we've heard - thus far - about the candidates' religion.

While there are still those fringe (and not so fringe) allusions to President Obama being Muslim (he is not, he's a Protestant), there has been almost no public conversation about Governor Romney's Mormonism.  And remarkably, President Obama is the only Protestant on either ticket.  Vice President Biden is a Catholic.  Representative Ryan is a Catholic.

We have actually heard significantly more lately about Catholicism and how to be a good Catholic Politician than we have about Mormonism.

1. Does this mean individual religion isn't such a big thing in politics anymore?

There is some evidence for that proposition.

The Court: Right now on the Supreme Court there are 6 Catholics and 3 Jews - this is the first Supreme Court with no Protestants.  In 1960, JFK's Catholicism was a big deal, and we've never had a Jewish president or even presidential candidate (Senator Lieberman is the only Jewish vice presidential candidate we've had).

Congress: Generally speaking, Congress is fairly well representative of religious communities in America.  Protestants (generally), Catholics, Jews, and Mormons are all over-represented.  I read the "unaffiliated" 16.1% (below) of the American public as atheists, agnostics, and "spiritual but not religious" folks - and they are seriously underrepresented (Pew doesn't really count this openly for some reason).

And by Chamber:

If you look at Leadership in Congress:

  • Senate Majority Leader Reid is a Mormon.
  • Speaker Boehner is a Catholic.
  • Senate Minority Leader McConnell is a Baptist.
  • House Democratic Leader Pelosi is a Catholic.
  • House Majority Leader Cantor is Jewish.

That's pretty darn diverse.

That is not to say that religion has not come up in this election.  

2. There is still the Obama is a Muslim meme.  That has been compounded by allegations by Romney and Republican leaders, Fox News, and some Catholics that the President is waging a War on Religion.

3. There is a fair amount of talk with the selection of Ryan about how Biden and Ryan will impact the Catholic vote.  For what it's worth, the conservative Catholic League President Bill Donohue has this to say about Catholic VP v. Catholic VP:

In many respects, the Catholic community today is divided into pro-life and social justice camps. That is unfortunate, and while this division can be overstated, it remains true that most Catholic activists sit in either one camp or the other; cross-over Catholics are a rare breed. 
Paul Ryan represents the pro-life wing, and Joe Biden represents the social justice wing. Indeed, both exemplify the differences, and not just on the issue of abortion. For example, Ryan’s idea of freedom of choice commits him to supporting school vouchers; Biden’s notion of choice commits him to abortion rights. Ryan is opposed to reinventing the institution of marriage; Biden wants to expand marriage to include two people of the same sex. 
The Catholic Church opposes abortion and gay marriage. On both of these issues, Biden disagrees with the Church. Biden’s defenders, e.g., Catholics who identify with social justice concerns, argue that Ryan’s budgetary prescriptions make him the dissident Catholic; his ideas are said to hurt the poor. This assumes, however, that there is a clear Catholic teaching on what constitutes the best means to conquer poverty. There isn’t. For instance, fidelity to the Church’s preferential option for the poor can be realized by making a serious case to raise taxes, or to lower them. In effect, both Biden and Ryan can plausibly maintain that he is a champion of the poor. But only one, Ryan, can be identified as the champion of the unborn. 
Not all policy issues are equal. Abortion is regarded by the Catholic Church as “intrinsically evil.” Moreover, the bishops’ conference has explicitly endorsed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. This puts Biden at a decisive disadvantage in making the case that he better represents Catholic teachings.

So there's that. Abortion Supposedly Trumps Poverty in Catholic Political Poker.

Not sure the nuns agree with you, Mr. Donohue.

4. And maybe we're just getting to Mormonism.  

In the past week we have two New York Times pieces, one long New Yorker piece, and a Washington Post story about Mormonism.  To be fair, these stories are all fairly benign pieces about what Mormonism is and a few fun facts about the religion, coupled with the usual process story of how to use/not use Mormonism in the Convention process (which has become the coronation process for nominees in recent history).

Then we have a HuffPo wish list of what a documentary-maker (of the PBS series The Mormons) and her Mormon consultant would like Romney to address about his religion.  Sample:

2. How does Mormonism's boundless optimism, which transcends even death in a manner unlike any other religion, shape your vision of America's present and future?... 

4. When Mormons are asked about Joseph Smith's powerful final vision about man becoming God, "God-like" is almost always substituted for becoming God. But Mormonism's oft-quoted tenet is unambiguous: "As God is, man may become." Can you explain this core belief in a way that addresses the charge of blasphemy made by other religions?...  

9. Of all the misconceptions surrounding your religion, which one has offended you the most? Or, to interject a lighter note, what misinformation or stereotype has caused you to roll your eyes and even laugh when you are with your Mormon friends? 

Slightly less Mormon-friendly are the pieces from Reuters about how much money the Mormon Church gets from tithing (Spoiler Alert: $7 billion a year), and The Daily Beast's interview with Brigham Young's Great-Great-Grandaughter about why she left the Mormon Church (Spoiler Alert: it's because of the way the Church treats women).

5. If there were ever an election about religion, this one would be an interesting one.

I suspect the press is pretty wary of tackling the subject head-on, but considering how much religion can impact one's political views, there are some pretty interesting conversations to be had about religion in this election.

  • How will the tug of war over Catholics progress?  Does abortion really trump social justice with Catholic voters?  

  • How much do voters know about/understand Mormonism?  How will those views develop as we learn more about the fairly secretive religion?

  • And what does a war on religion look like in America?  Is that what's going on?  Or is it - as some Emilys would say - rather about what role our individual beliefs should have in determining what is right and wrong in a democracy, and what beliefs/matters/decisions/actions are public versus personal?


  1. And in a timely fashion comes the news that there is a fivefold increase in U.S. Atheists. I personally suspect it's more like a fivefold increase in people willing to publicly admit they are atheists, but whichever:

  2. Yes, I definitely believe that more atheists are willing to come out of the closet than any real increase in actual numbers.

  3. I cannot believe Beadgirl isn't on here yet, she must be busy today :-)

  4. Sorry, busy with the Beadboys and errands and thunderstorms!

    1) Donohue is right (gah, I can't believe I said that) about there being few "cross-over Catholic" politicians, which is my problem with both political parties. I think social justice issues are hugely important, but abortion is worse, in that it involves actual direct murder. Don't forget, from our point of 50 million babies have been killed in the U.S. alone since Roe v. Wade -- that's a pretty horrific thing, and the only way issues like poverty or immigration or health care trump that would be if either 1) the latter issues directly resulted in more death or 2) you don't actually think unborn babies are humans.

    That does not necessarily lead to all pro-life Catholics voting for pro-life candidates over pro-social-justice* candidates, partly because of the behavior of Republicans. I'm not the only pro-life Catholic absolutely disgusted with Republican candidates who tell us "you have to vote for us, even if we are going to slash welfare and medicare and set up big torture camps and do some more drone killings, because we are pro-life** and if you don't vote for us you are secretly pro-abortion" who then, after the elections, go back to doing what the GOP always does about abortion -- NOTHING. They've been making big promises for years, with no results. Add to that stare decisis and why the hell would I bother voting for a Republican? Especially Romney, who flip-flops on this issue?

    It also depends on what you mean by "Catholic," e.g. Some Catholics would argue that Pelosi is not one. Others point out (rightly, vis a vis Canon Law) that she is Catholic, but a heretic. And as far as I have seen, her Catholicism has not actually had any effect on her actions, so it seems irrelevant, as it seems for Biden and Gingrich. That may be why the religions of the various candidates have not sparked much discussion -- because their actions are driven far more by their political aspirations and secular practices rather than actual religious theology or morality. Actually, I think this is the key point.

    2) I have nothing nice to say about the Mormon religion (as opposed to Mormons themselves) so I won't comment on this. :>

    *And here's where I add that abortion is in fact an issue of social justice, for a whole host of reasons.

    **Really, anti-abortion.

  5. Part 2:

    3) I'm generally skeptical of "war on . . ." rhetoric, and especially skeptical of claims on a war on religion in general or the Church in particular, given that no one has tried to kill me for attending Mass every Sunday. That said, I do think that there is a growing conflict between religion and secular society, and religion is losing. As part of a general "don't tell me what to do" attitude Americans have in spades, there is an increasing notion that religion only belongs in a house of worship for an hour on the weekend, and nowhere else. So politicians cannot use their faith's morality to guide their actions (but morality from secular sources is ok). People cannot talk about their beliefs outside of church because it must be proselytizing (when Gabby whatshername talked about God in her interviews after winning her medals, I can't tell you how many people wrote how uncomfortable they were with her even mentioning God, and that she should keep her faith private). Religious organizations must provide free birth control, regardless of whether such actions directly violate their religion's precepts and their own consciences. Even simply expressing a particular religious belief v("I believe x") is judging someone (so mean!) and can even be considered "hate-speech." But faith is not something you compartementalize -- the whole point is that it guides you in your day-to-day actions. Funny how nobody complains when a Catholic follows the Church's moral precepts with regard to things like murder, perjury, theft.

    We are in a highly pluralistic society, and we need to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is going to agree with us, that judgment is not the worst thing a person can do to you, and that the First Amendment protects not just the right to believe any religion, but to exercise it too. Douthat explains it much more eloquently than I:

    But we are losing. I don't feel comfortable expressing certain beliefs because I fear that people won't actually listen to my reasons and will just dismiss me as that crazy Catholic, if not actually yell at me and insult me (not that you two would do this).

  6. There are some really talk-worthy points in there. I promise to engage on them as soon as my head is not exploding with this cold :-)

  7. Part One:
    Okay, wading in (if I do not follow a straight narrative line, it's because the kids are still cranky as all get-out)...

    Again, disclaimer: I am not a Catholic. I do not claim to know what being a good Catholic means. I do, however, think that once we have 2/3 of the Supreme Court and 1/2 of the people running on presidential tickets being Catholic that the issue of how faith and policy intersect is important. So I'll wade in.

    On the 50 million abortions thing, I think that the distinction really is whether people believe zygotes are people or do not. And I suspect there are many different versions of what people believe on that (e.g. embryos but not zygotes, embryos versus fetuses, etc), which is why it makes sense to retain this as a personal decision. I do understand that if you believe zygotes are people that of course that you wouldn't agree with that. Which is why the Clintonian reducing the number ("safe, legal, and rare") is the only place we can all truly come together. There just isn't the agreement on this to make it clear where the "crime" would be, and it's not one of those things that is simple to administer - even if we were to all agree - because of the unique nature of pregnancy.

    Then there's the sex ed part, which statements like Rep. Akin's, and Romney not understanding that personhood would outlaw most birth control, come in. We can't establish any kind of reasonable law or dialogue when not everybody understands how an egg is fertilized, let alone how different kinds of birth control work. Sex ed is necessary. Real sex ed, not "abstinence only" or "abstinence plus" which is code for "ignorance."

    The heretic label feels pretty mean, from the outside.

    I appreciate the fact that you differ from the many conservative Catholics who ignore the death penalty, drone killings, etc. I suspect that the larger issue is that there are places where everybody disagrees with their religion, and all human beings like to ignore or downplay those things because in theory, you know, that's not good. If you are religious.

    And I suspect there are interesting conversations to be had on the drones, too. I tend to understand why Obama prefers them to conventional warfare.

    Totally agree on the "war on..." rhetoric. It's generally useless and hyperbole. It gets overused to the point of meaninglessness by the Fox folks. And it's important, I think, to remember to respect the true gravitas of war, in the same way that I'd like us to respect the gravitas of the fascism/Hitler comparisons and not throw them around willy-nilly.

  8. Part Two:

    Gabby Douglas can say whatever she wants, but every time an athlete or musician or whatever thanks god for winning something I always think they are back-handedly saying god was not on the side of the people who did not win whatever they won. Which seems pretty silly to me, because I would imagine God has better things to do than micromanage gymnastics or fix the grammys. Also, I think it underplays the tremendous amount of hard work and personal fortitude it took to accomplish what she accomplished.

    I still don't understand what the big deal on the requirement for institutions that are religiously-affiliated (not churches) to cover birth control in their employee health care plan is. For one thing, there are reasons other than birth control that people use the pill. For another, the individual choice of the employee would seem to negate any direct line to the sin from the religious institution. However, if we were more efficient and didn't have employer-based health insurance anymore, the whole thing could be avoided.

    Pluralism does not mean that when you go out into the world and interact as a religious institution that you won't be subject to the same expectations as other people. If religious institutions enter into secular business, they must abide by the rules. It's the Establishment counter to the Free Exercise that I think people don't talk enough about. If churches are allowed to control the health decisions of their non-church employees who work in large institutions (GULC, for example), that is an Establishment issue.

    I think there are three parts to the "why Rs haven't banned abortion when they promise it" thing:

    1) It's not easy to do - most people don't support banning abortion ("About 52% of those currently polled believe abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, a slight increase from last year's findings of 50%. About 20% want abortion to be made illegal in all cases, while about 25% want it legal in all cases" - and that translates into reps and senators who would be afraid to vote for/wouldn't agree with a ban,

    2) Rs know that there will be a backlash if they do, and traditionally the R leadership has been more interested in keeping power on other issues than banning abortion (we are potentially seeing that change right now with the wave of Tea Partying, and we are also seeing a backlash), and

    3) If they ban abortion, they won't have it to run on.

    I think that there is a movement among people our age (Late-Xer) and beyond (Millennial) that makes people more likely to admit atheism/agnostic/spiritual-not-religious beliefs. That same movement in what is expected when you talk to people has to some extent continued a delineation between those who are more and less likely to be believers (which is also a line on those who are more and less likely to be pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-science, and D versus R). You tend to be on the cultural side of people who tend to be more non-believing. People should still listen to each other and talk honestly about things. But since political correctness people are afraid to speak honestly about how they feel about things on which they differ. It's so much more comfortable to just segregate with the people who agree with you. We have our own news, our own states (if you believe the media, which I don't on that), our own institutions. It's counter-democratic, though, anti-inclusive, and it is one of the reasons we are having such trouble right now.

    FWIW I think people probably don't dismiss you so much as choose not to engage because they don't want to get into a fight or offend you. Happily, Mandi and I are loud-mouths who are also curious about what people really think, so we don't have that problem :-)

  9. I forgot one part to my birth control mandate argument: how does requiring an employer to pay the employer-portion of health insurance that must cover birth control differ substantively from paying an employee and they go out and use the money to buy birth control? And if you (church) decide to enter the health insurance business as a religious institution, well, you know that we consider birth control and abortion to be a part of our health care system.

  10. "The heretic label feels pretty mean, from the outside."

    It is true, though. It's one thing to privately disagree with a Church teaching, it is another to publicly proclaim it. I think the reason why people have a gut negative reaction to the term "heretic" is because of the historical treatment of heretics (which had more to do with the social and political climate at the time, rather than religious doctrine -- unrepentant heretics were executed because everybody was executed, not because heresy deserves execution).

    You are absolutely right about why Republicans don't do too much about abortion.

    "I still don't understand what the big deal on the requirement for institutions that are religiously-affiliated (not churches) to cover birth control in their employee health care plan is. For one thing, there are reasons other than birth control that people use the pill. For another, the individual choice of the employee would seem to negate any direct line to the sin from the religious institution. . . . how does requiring an employer to pay the employer-portion of health insurance that must cover birth control differ substantively from paying an employee and they go out and use the money to buy birth control?"

    It's the difference between giving your child a coupon for a free beer and giving him an allowance, the spending of which you have no control over. It comes down to the Catholic concepts of "formal cooperation with evil," "proximate material cooperation, and "remote material cooperation." This article, in the context of voting, explains it if you are interested:

    You are right that sometimes the pill is used to treat a medical condition, and the Church is ok with that as long as the pill is the most medically appropriate treatment (there are others) and would be chosen regardless of whether the woman is sexually active. It's that concept of Double Effect again. But paying for the pill when it's only purpose is to prevent conception would be a sin.

    "And if you (church) decide to enter the health insurance business as a religious institution, well, you know that we consider birth control and abortion to be a part of our health care system."
    Ah, but under the Mandate, Catholic companies won't have the option they used to, of not providing health insurance at all.

    "However, if we were more efficient and didn't have employer-based health insurance anymore, the whole thing could be avoided"

    True dat. That's why we were screwed over at Mr. Beadgirl's old firm, when he became partner -- he was no longer an "employee" so we had to pay for our own insurance, at a HUGE cost. And going without was not an option because of Beadboy1.

    As for Gabby's comments, yeah, I get uncomfortable too with "God helped me win." But then, I do believe that absolutely everything that happens in the world that is not evil is God's will, what he wanted, so technically, yeah, he wanted Gabby to win. Why? Who the heck knows.