The theology behind the speeches

Two posts in Religion Dispatches describe the the theology that underlies the ideologies at the Republican National Convention that just wrapped up in Tampa. First, Joanna Brooks talks about the presentation of Mormonism at the Convention. Next, Sarah Posner looks at how Roman Catholicism is interpreted to match the politics of the GOP candidates.

Both Brooks and Posner wonder how theologies of compassion and corporate responsibility for the poor square with policies that hurt and disenfranchise them.

Brooks says the RNC Takes America to Church—Mormon Style—as Rank-and-File LDS Step Up

After eighteen months of fastidiously avoiding the issue of religion—a strategy that at times conveyed the unfortunate impression that his Mormonism was something Romney felt he needed to hide– the Romney campaign invited regular rank-and-file Mormons to do the heavy lifting on religion for them….

… I found it such a relief to hear Mormonism presented with plainspoken dignity by regular Mormon people. (I’ll forgive the sentimental sheen this time—it was, after all, a political convention bent on candidate hagiography.)

And then, the regular Mormons left the stage. The politicians returned. Marco Rubio allegedly dazzled. Clint Eastwood rambled. And Mitt Romney concluded the evening with an address most listeners agreed was entirely competent and predictable.

And it’s this divergence between the Mitt Romney described by his fellow Mormons and the Mitt Romney who appeared at the podium a few minutes later that can and should be the subject of solid questions about religion and politics in the closing weeks of this campaign.

How does a presidential candidate who in his religious life has done good deeds for the ill, elderly, and vulnerable support economic policies widely decried as disproportionately impacting the ill, elderly, and vulnerable? How does a presidential candidate who has worked so closely with the poor countenance a budget that cuts away, for example, at food stamps while preserving military spending and offering tax cuts to the wealthiest? How do individual acts of mercy balance with international saber-rattling?

These are the hard, broad philosophical questions I’ve been waiting for all season long—not the foolish questions fixated on nineteenth-century folk doctrines, or cartoon images taken from low budget anti-Mormon propaganda films—but the questions that get down to the matter of how faith shapes our national moral bearings and provides direction when hard choices face us.

And now is the time to ask them.

Posner points out that John Boener’s introduction of Cardinal Dolan summarized the basic theology behind the RNC platform: that the only people in society God to be compassionate to the poor are people of faith. Government has no role in this. (Apparently with the exception of women’s health and gay marriage.)

Following Romney, House Speaker John Boehner introduced Timothy Cardinal Dolan, who gave the closing benediction. Boehner, who, like Paul Ryan, is Catholic, has been criticized by Catholic academics who deemed his voting record “at variance from one of the church’s most ancient moral teachings. From the apostles to the present, the magisterium of the church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress.” In introducing Dolan, Boehner pronounced that the Cardinal understood that “the preferential option for the poor doesn’t always translate into a preferential option for big government.”

Catholic theologians and rank and file Catholics will undoubtedly discuss that line in some detail. But Catholic teaching aside, Boehner’s statement reflects exactly what lies at the heart of a conservative theology of government: that government should do very little (in fact, they argue, God has granted government only very limited authority), while people and churches pick up the slack. It’s an idea with roots in Christian anti-communism of the Cold War era, and an idea that still informs the Tea Party. Conservatives claim it’s in the Bible.

That’s why the speeches supporting Romney would work for conservatives: if everyone were more like Romney, that argument goes, we wouldn’t need a government-provided social safety net. That claim lies at the heart of the most crucial economic argument of the election, the role of government in the economy, and it’s not going to be resolved through a theological discussion. It’s going to be resolved with facts and figures: that in spite of the kindness and generosity of millions of Americans, who, like Romney, have helped someone in need, millions of Americans are left behind by the vaunted free market. A thousand speeches from Romney’s friends isn’t going to change that.

Slate’s Sasha Issenburg says that Romney’s speech and the line of people people describing his religion has opened it as a topic for questioning.

…while the tales of Bain’s successes remain largely fresh, it is of course the accounts of his relationships with his fellow Mormons that are perhaps most jarring to our understanding of Romney.

I can’t think of the last time we had a major-party nominee whose life was deeply intertwined with the institutions of his religion. Romney is not only an active believer, like Jimmy Carter, but someone who has assumed the most significant leadership positions his faith makes available to a layperson. As stake president, Romney assumed duties of church administration; as bishop, he had responsibility for his flock’s spiritual well-being.

We’ve so far treated Romney’s religion as a binary biographical fact: Is it proper for us to mention it or not? Tonight Romney has officially given us permission to treat his faith as an important part of who he is. So let’s stop talking not about if we’re ready to have a president who is an adherent of an outlying faith. Instead let’s ask the more important question about Romney: What would it mean to have a president whose leadership skills were honed while wielding the power and authority of a church?

Past Posts