Jun 25, 2012

Andrew Sullivan's anti-Mormon bigotry

A pro-KKK cartoon, crica 1920s, showing a happy Klansman triumphing
over the pope, with the aid of the Bible and the American flag.
In movements of bigotry, there are always two wings. The one is crass, unrefined, and generally marked as poor, and lower class. This bigotry is thought of as ill breeding, and something to be cured with education. The bigotry of hicks and yahoos.

There's also the other wing, though, which is more subtle, and more insidious: bigotry with a scrim of rhetorical finesse, refinement, reasonableness.

This kind poses as "just asking questions." It distinguishes itself and distances itself from the dirty, ill-mannered version, and declares itself concerned and thoughtful, not a thing of mouth-breathing hatred or hate-hearted viciousness, but just questions, just "raising issues." Still, it's bigotry. Just more clever. Its mode is not bald declarations denigrating entire groups, but frames for discourse that direct the conversation to that same end. It naturalizes, normalizes, justifies unfounded suspicions. It confirms the reasonableness of distrust, so that one can say "I knew there was a reason I didn't like those guys!" and feel better about it.

When the history is written of anti-Mormon bigotry in America, 2007-2012, we'll have a fine example of this "reasonable," "refined" bigotry with Andrew Sullivan.

Sullivan has been "raising questions" about Mormonism recently, in light of the presidential campaign, and in light, specifically, of the fact that Mitt Romney's win of the Republican Party primary has meant that anti-Mormon Republicans such as Robert Jeffress have given up on the issue. Sullivan, an Oakeshottian conservative who has advocated for and defended Obama, has picked up the abandoned anti-Mormon baton.

He doesn't make a direct attacks, and has avoided some of the common tropes of hysterical, over-the-top anti-Mormonism (of the sort practiced by Bill Maher). But the sum of his questions, the direction of his implications, and the overall of point of his "just asking" is an argument against Romney on the grounds of Mormonism. Piece by piece, he's setting up his own religious test. Sullivan's "drift," if you catch it, is that reasonable people shouldn't support presidential candidate of this faith, because of this faith.

He says, for example, that what's "wrong with Mitt," is that he comes off as fake. He "makes plastic look real," and robots relatable. The apparent fakeness, it's important to note, has a connotation of not just being being stiff of uncomfortable, but specifically untrustworthy. Dishonest. Sullivan returns to this idea of Romney's "uncanniness," and attributes it directly to Romney's Mormonism, i.e., Sullivan decides that what makes Romney seem unhuman is his "Mormon mask."

Except Sullivan gives himself some rhetorical distance from the claim with a question mark and a pair of quotation marks: The "Mormon Mask"?

Just askin'.

It's that reasonableness of faux facts framed for the sake of a conclusion one won't personally own, but just strongly suggest. Sullivan says the "Mormon mask" thing isn't his idea, but came up in conversation with "a Mormon friend the other day." He further disowns the whole thing with a disclaimer, "I have no way to know whether this is true or not."

But he doesn't really entertain the possibility it's not true. He just gives himself the out, if he's called on it.

It takes a few steps, and has a few feints, but there's a straight line, for all of that, from the idea that Romney is Mormon to the idea that something's wrong with him and that those two things are connected. The blog posts are strung across a week, but put them together and the argument's straightforward enough:

Don't trust Romney because he's Mormon.

Sullivan comes back to question of Mormonism when the Texas primary gave Romney the majority of delegates to the Republican National Convention, ensuring his nomination. Here, he drew a connection between Mormon doctrine about America and Romeny's (objectionable) foreign policy. Sullivan wrote that "For Mormons, the Constitution was a necessary great prologue for the real endeavor: the restoration of the Gospel, i.e. the triumph of Mormonism over other forms of Christianity." Sullivan claims Mormon's believe in "America's unique and divine status," which has "profound foreign policy implications." That is: a complete lack of realism and moderation, and the "core principle" that "America is always, by definition, right" (italics original).

Sullivan's gloss on the necessary foreign policy conclusions of the belief the U.S. Constitution was divinely inspired:
"It means that America alone has divine permission to do what it wants in the wider world, that America is subject to different standards than everyone else (because we alone are divinely blessed), and that geopolitics is about the global supremacy of the modern world's first divine nation (even if Iran and Israel might differ on which country is divinely blessed)."
That's a leap, presented as a natural step. There are several other instances of this problem with this whole argument.
  1. Sullivan has a tenuous grasp on Mormon theology. 
  2. Theology is, as a rule, understood and interpreted in various ways, never nearly so univocally as it's presented here.
  3. There's a significant gap between official dogma and the beliefs held by individuals (something Sullivan, a Catholic who very much opposed to the church hierarcy and official church teaching on a range of issues, well knows).
  4. There's no necessary connection between a specific theological belief and a specific policy position, or political practice. It may be the case that a President Romney would carry out foreign policy the way Sullivan describes, and that he would justify it based on that belief, but it's not necessarily so.
  5. It's simply, factually false that official Mormon doctrine denies America can ever be in the wrong (cf. Mormon theological interpretations of the Civil War).
There are significant gaps in these arguments, and significant lack of evidence. He's claiming that these connections between doctrine and policy are necessary, but, even if he's gotten the doctrine right, hasn't done any work to show that Romney holds that doctrine, or that the connection is logically necessary, or that in fact, in history, it is always the case that there's this connection.

Sullivan is arguing by innuendo and suggestion.

If it really is the case that Romney believes that "America is always, by definition, right," and that he has to believe this because he's Mormon, it should be easy enough to show that Romney has never ever thought America was wrong about anything, and really that it would be impossible for America to be wrong, and, further, that all good Mormons think this way.

Yet Sullivan doesn't make the case. He trots out no quotes, no examples, no proof.

Instead, he retreats, as "reasonable" bigots always do, to rhetorical questions:
"Does Romeny believe that America is uniquely divine among nations? How would that affect his decisions as president? Does he believe that the Constitution is also divine and a 'necessary prologue' for the triumph of the LDS Church in America and across the world? Would he therefore appoint Justices who share that view?"
If these are good questions, Sullivan should try to answer them. Instead what he does is frame the conversation with these questions so that the answers seem obvious. So bigotry seems justified, and suspicion seems natural.

It's a slimy way to argue, and easy enough to do. Shirk the work of showing, and just suggest. If you get called on it, there's plenty of room for plausible deniability. One can say, always, "oh I was just asking." Even though the argument embedded in the questions is pretty simple, and works not to explicate or explain but just aggravate suspicion, and give intellectual cover to the crasser kind of bigotry.

The point is just a fancy version of the same thing: Don't trust Mormons because they're Mormon.

It's exactly this strategy of suggestion Sullivan followed when laying down his test for the legitimacy of a religion. Instead of just directly making the argument that Mormons shouldn't be allowed in power because their faith is weird, he proposes a set of questions by which one can determine if a religion is too weird:
"1. Does it have secret, sacred places that are sealed off from outsiders? 2. Is there some kind of esoteric teaching involved known only to those high up in the faith? 3. Is it easy to leave the church, i.e. is apostasy without serious consequences? 4. Does it enforce tithing effectively?"
At least two of those, though, apply to Sullivan's own Catholic Church. It's not like one can freely wander through the Vatican: there are parts closed to the public. There are "secret archives." There are, further, lots of monastic orders completely closed to the public. Nor does the church have trouble raising money from adherents. In 2010, the Holy See received  $67.7 million in donations from the faithful, and that wasn't even a good year. On those grounds, which are Sullivan's, Sullian's Catholic church is as illegitimate as the Latter-day Saints. Questions 2. and 3. are debatable, but there is a case to be made against the Catholics on those grounds too. Maybe there are no "esoteric teachings involved known only to those high up," but the Catholic cardinals certainly reserve all sorts of power for themselves, and there are practices the cardinals engage in, such as the appointing of a new pope, that are pretty secret. It's easy enough to leave the Catholic Church -- at least now, at least in America -- but it's not at all clear that it's significantly easier to disaffiliate with the Catholic Church than it is with the Mormon church.

To Sullivan's short list one could easily add the "reasonable questions" traditionally raised by anti-Catholics:
6. Does it require adherents to tell religious leaders their secrets?
7. Does it hold to an episcopal form of government incompatible with democracy?
8. Are leaders supposed to speak directly on behalf of God?
9. Does it teach that all other forms of religion are false?
10. Does it demand loyalty over and beyond loyalty to the state?
Jack Chick's portrayal of classic anti-Catholic argument,
that the religion is incompatible with American citizenship.

The comparison to classic American anti-Catholicism is not a stretch. Sullivan's arguments are of apiece with the "reasonable" anti-Catholic arguments. Not those made by the Klan, or any of the other vulgar nativist groups, but rather with the refined, respectable variety that made up the other wing of that movement of bigotry.

Sullivan is, in fact, embracing the same sort of arguments that Lyman Beecher embraced in his classic anti-Catholic work, Plea for the West. Beecher -- who arguably was complicit in anti-Catholic violence in the 1830s -- claimed the Catholics were just different, and were just not compatible with good democracy for reasons of their religion.

He wrote:
"The Catholic system is adverse to liberty, and the clergy to a great extent are dependent on foreigners opposed to the principles of our government, for patronage and support. Is it invidious and is it superfluous to call the attention of the nation to the bearing of such a denomination upon our civil and religious institutions and equal rights? It is the right of SELF-PRESERVATION, and the denial of it is TREASON.... It is the duty also enforced by the unparalleled novelty and urgency of our condition." (72-73)
Sullivan writes:
"But one can examine the structure of the religion and its practices, to see if they are easily compatible with open government and transparency, or if they rely on intimidation, isolation and cultic practices. Perhaps this can be ignored with lesser offices. But a president is different."
Beecher, making the argument Catholic were secret agents for foreign power:
"But if, upon examination, it should appear that three-fourths of the foreign emigrants whose accumulating tide is rolling in upon us, are, through the medium of their religion and priesthood, as entirely accessible to the control of the potentates of Europe as if they were an army of soldiers, enlisted and officered, and spreading over the land ; then, indeed, should we have just occasion to apprehend danger to our liberties." (57-58)
Sullivan, making the argument Romney is a secret agent for a Mormon conspiracy:
"Why did Romney go to Salt Lake City to consult with the big machers in the church before running as a pro-choice candidate in Massachusetts? What transpired at that meeting? (Can you imagine John Kerry going to the Vatican to inform the Pope that he was going to run as a pro-choice candidate - and getting the Pope's silence as a result?) The only explanation that makes sense to me is that they believed that getting a Mormon into the governor's office was more important than adhering to church teaching."
There are differences, of course. These are two different historical moments. The substance, however, the core, is the same. The belief is that a "strange" religion is by nature deceptive, a threat to be opposed even if it doesn't appear on the surface to be threatening. The imperative in both cases is "Be suspicious! This religion is secretive and threatening."

In both cases, there's a cavalier disregard for American pluralism and freedom of religion. There is an argument the idea of America is incomparable with certain faiths, even if part of the idea that is America is the idea that free exercise of religion is always allowed, and no bar to full citizenship. For both Sullivan and Beecher, the religion in question should have to prove itself, and submit to interrogation, even though it's already been established these people can't be trusted.

If classic anti-Catholic rhetoric is unacceptable in a democracy with freedom of religion -- hint: it is -- then why is Sullivan's anti-Mormonism any different?

His argument, of course, is that unlike Beecher he's not making an argument. He's just sayin'. He's only asking (legitimate) questions. The same tact, though, was taken in opposition to the first Catholic candidate for president, Al Smith. As Charles Marshall wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1927, in an open letter to Smith,
"...there is a note of doubt, a sinister accent of interrogation, not as to intentional rectitude and moral purpose, but as to certain conceptions which your fellow citizens attribute to you as a loyal and conscientious Roman Catholic, which in their minds are irreconcilable with that Constitution which as President you must support and defend, and with the principles of civil and religious liberty on which American institutions are based.

"To this consideration no word of yours, or on your behalf, has yet been addressed. Its discussion in the interests of the public weal is obviously necessary, and yet a strange reticence avoids it, often with the unjust and withering attribution of bigotry or prejudice as the unworthy motive of its introduction. Undoubtedly a large part of the public would gladly avoid a subject the discussion of which is so unhappily associated with rancor and malevolence, and yet to avoid the subject is to neglect the profoundest interests in our national welfare."
 Sullivan's argument is not so different:
"If [Romney] has been part of a church hierarchy, has had secret meetings with them, has a social life revolving almost entirely around fellow Mormons, and practices his faith in places that no one can see or talk about ... then we have some questions. If a candidate's best friends say that Mormonism is at the very core of who Romney is, then his refusal to answer any questions about it or discuss it at all is already disturbing."
There may be a politic sense in which answering questions about his faith and how it informs his philosophy of government and style of leadership would be a smart move. Or maybe not. But, regardless, there's no sense in which these are honest, charitable, fair-minded questions being asked. It's a campaign of aspersions, an attempt to aggravate and provide cover for anti-Mormon suspicions.

The questions aren't honest questions. They're not being asked in good faith.

There's a pretty apparent difference between an innocent question about a candidate's fatih -- "How the doctrines of your religion influence your administration?" -- and the kinds of malevolent, coded, rhetorical questions Sullivan favors.

All of this is stuff Sullivan claims to abhor when other people do it. And yet, the fact that they do is exactly his argument for why it's perfectly fair. In his direct defense of asking these questions, Sullivan claims that he himself holds "that politics and religion are separate spheres and that a candidate's faith should not be a major issue for anyone," but that his belief has to be disregarded, since certain modern political figures on the right who disgust him, Rick Santorum, Karl Rove, etc., don't share it. His argument, his defense, is " there really is no solid defense against an examination of Romney's faith and how it formed him - or questioning some of his faith's stranger doctrines," because those he vigorously opposes don't think there's anything wrong with it.

It's not exactly an appeal to the better angels of our nature.

I'm convinced that Sullivan, deep down, in his heart of hearts, doesn't believe Mormons nor anyone else should be barred from full citizenship in America because of their religious preference. I don't think he honestly, in the abstract, thinks there should be a test of the weirdness of one's religion before one is allowed to campaign for president. It's just politics.

That's how "classy" bigotry works, though.