May 21 (Bloomberg) -- During the 2008 presidential primary race, evangelical stalwart Mike Huckabee darkly hinted that Mitt Romney might believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers. This time around, Romney is the featured graduation speaker at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. What changed?
In the short-term world of party politics, the answer is that everybody loves a winner -- even the people who tried to beat him in the first place. Evangelicals will have to vote for the presumptive Republican nominee unless they want to stay home and effectively cast their votes for President Barack Obama. Romney may be a Mormon, but Obama is worse, even for those who acknowledge that he is not (gasp) a Muslim.
What is more, evangelicals had a disastrously bad primary season. At least since 1980, they have been an important, indeed crucial, bloc in Republican electoral politics -- motivated, activist and effective. Now the moving force on the right wing of the Republican Party is the Tea Party.
No doubt there are Tea Party evangelicals, too. Overlap is perfectly possible. But what is motivating the Tea Party is patriotic faith, not the religious kind. Government spending is the enemy, not secular humanism.
In this environment of reduced power, evangelicals must count themselves fortunate that the presumptive nominee is bothering to pander to them at all. Having been spurned by the values voters on theological terms four years ago, Romney could have felt bitter, the way John McCain did in 2008 remembering that evangelicals had handed his head to George W. Bush in South Carolina in 2000.
Equivalent Moral Values
But Romney is a different kettle of fish. Unlike McCain, Romney was always mystified by evangelicals’ rejection. As a deeply believing Mormon, he actually, sincerely (yes, sincerely) believes that his moral values are equivalent to those of evangelicals.
And as a Mormon, Romney is a participant -- indeed, he is the most important participant -- in the long-term project of convincing mainstream American Protestants that Mormonism is a normal denomination like all the others. Given this historic opportunity to “normalize” Mormonism, Romney is acting not opportunistically but on deeply felt principle. By embracing evangelicals and being embraced by them, he is bringing Mormonism into the denominational scheme that characterizes mainstream American Christianity.
Short-term politics is therefore making a long-term historic difference. Evangelical Protestants who once believed that Mormonism was a deviant sect, not a legitimate denomination, may come to believe something very different as they prepare to cast their votes for a Romney. The practice of pluralism can come first. The beliefs can come later.
There is nothing unique about this cart-pulling-the-horse version of tolerance. The modern doctrine of religious toleration grew out of the wars of religion of the 17th century. When enough people had died, practical people -- especially politicians -- begin to see the benefits of leaving well enough alone. Once the government has dictated toleration, the citizens who must practice it need to find a good reason for doing so. Tolerance is the theory that justifies practical coexistence.
As Americans, we can pat ourselves on the back in celebration of increased toleration. The fact that it comes from a historically less-tolerant strand of American life just makes the victory for coexistence all the sweeter.
In historical terms, this change is business as usual. Catholics came to be seen as a legitimate Christian denomination only after years of oppression. Then came the acceptance of Jews. Mormons are the latest beneficiaries. Eventually, Muslims and Hindus will have their day as well.
Price of Normalization
Yet the consequences of turning Mormonism into just another denomination are epochal for Mormons. The doctrine of “be careful what you wish for” certainly applies.
On the one hand, Mormons no doubt believe, with reason, that their evangelizing efforts will be enhanced by a broad public perception that they are Christian. After all, American Protestants change denominations with little frictional effect. If all are worshipping Christ, the mode of worship seems altogether secondary.
On the other hand, seen through the lens of history, entering the mainstream poses major risks. If Mormons think of themselves as another Christian denomination, the risk of defection rises. The distinctive Mormon beliefs in a new scripture and in the possibility of joining the supernal realm for eternal life will come into jeopardy precisely because they mark differences with the Protestant mainstream. If you believe you are not that different from others, there will be a tendency to downplay those practices and beliefs that suggest otherwise.
The great model for this assimilationist danger is the German political emancipation of the Jews, which directly led to Reform Judaism. Removing the perception that Jews were fundamentally outside Christian society was a tremendous sociological boon to the German Jewish community in the early 1800s. Entering the mainstream, however, encouraged Jews to adopt practices and beliefs that corresponded to the very “modern” world that was welcoming them.
That wasn’t in and of itself a bad thing. But for many, something was lost. Today, Reform Judaism has in many ways returned to the traditional practices that long made Judaism different when measured against liberal Christianity. Mormonism will face a similar challenge in its impending acceptance by non-Mormons.
The death of bigotry is a good thing. Romney’s embrace by evangelicals is a great day for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet great days have unexpected consequences.
(Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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