Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why Mitt Romney Really Makes the Religious Left Nervous

By Garrett FitzGerald
October 26, 2011

When doing research for - or in the odd moment of vanity - I will sometimes pull up a Google search for "the religious left" to see what's floating around out there in the aether. At this point I'm pretty familiar with most of the recent articles about the religious left that are to be found on the interwebs, so it is always a real treat when these searches turn up something new.

Last week, when links started popping up across the conservative Twitter and blogosphere to an article entitled "Why Mitt Romney Makes the Religious Left Nervous," I naturally got pretty excited to find out why I, as a religious leftist, should be sweating over a candidate who hasn't even come close to winning over the religious right.

I'm not entirely sure what I was hoping to learn from Dan Delzell, the article's author, when I clicked on the link to his piece. Had Romney been making new friends among the still-powerful evangelical elite left over from the heyday of the 80's and 90's? Had he somehow patched things up with James Dobson and the gang over at Focus on the Family after the 2008 voter guide snafu? Or, wonder of wonders, had the religious right thrown wide the doors and finally welcomed their conservative Mormon sisters and brothers into the fold?

But rather of any of these troubling (though still newsworthy) developments, what I found instead was an attack by Delzell, supported by a veritable army of straw men, against both Romney and the religious left that left me feeling more confused than nervous.
The crux of Delzell's article boils down to this: Mitt Romney makes religious leftists uncomfortable because if we don't condemn his faith we are not real Christians, but if we do condemn his faith than we're not real liberals. Delzells' (mis)characterization of the religious left apparently hinges on his opinion that the one thing religious leftists seem comfortable absolutizing is relativism, which leads to a whole host of complications when religious leftists are pressed on issues of dogma:
It is not part of their practice to articulate biblical doctrine in too much detail. It all must be kept incredibly vague and inclusive. The minute a person on the religious left allows himself to get too specific about doctrine, he starts to feel way too much like an absolutist. Somebody gets left out.
You have to give Delzell credit for his attempt to empathize with liberal Christians, a harrowing descent into backwards thinking which he envisions thusly:
Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine being a religious liberal. You view the Bible primarily as a fable. You check the "Christian" box when asked your religion, but you don't associate with anyone who takes the Bible literally. You hope your followers vote against the Republican candidate. And then here comes Mitt Romney as the one chosen to oppose the "chosen one."
It's like I'm reading Dan Delzell reading my mind. 

Delzell goes on to explain when liberal and progressive Christians identify themselves as such, "[it] is not intended to mean that you believe in Christianity literally, say the way that Muslims or Mormons believe their respective religions present literal history and literal truth." I take it as implicit in this claim that being noncommittal about literal belief in Christianity is still probably more preferable to Delzell than the flat-out wrongness of literal belief in the history or doctrines of Mormonism or Islam.

There are any number of tempting targets in Delzell's piece, not least among them the laughable straw man constructions he tries to pass off as honest depictions of both liberalism and Christianity. I fully appreciate the value of setting the terms of a debate, but Delzell's depiction of wishy-washy, rigidly relativistic liberals is a stretch even by most conservative standards. Delzell's construction of real, Bible-believing Christianity, which we can infer in large part from his critiques of those who don't make the cut, is also a complete fabrication. I do (or at least try to) respect Delzell's right to stump for what he thinks is a literal, fundamentalist hermeneutic for the Scriptures (but real talk, literalism is every bit as contingent as other hermeneutical lenses) but trying to pretend that the myriad historical strains of Christianity - Mormonism included - are reducible or somehow beholden to one set of theological principles is dangerous and dishonest. 

Similarly dishonest is Delzell's caricaturing of the religious left as a bunch of relativism-loving neo-Pharisees too preoccupied with political correctness to ever consider making theological value judgments. Well, as this unrepentant religious leftist has said in previous posts, there is absolutely such a thing as bad theology, and to a certain extent I do understand my calling as a Christian to name and confront bad theology. But contrary to Delzell's claims, condemnation of bad theology does not hinge upon the legitimacy of Joseph Smith's prophethood or the veracity of religious understandings, literal or otherwise, of people with different beliefs than my own. Bad theology, the theology that I am called as a Christian to oppose in our public and political discourse, is any system of beliefs which invokes the transcendent to excuse worldly injustice. And when anyone's theology is invoked to justify harmful and oppressive social and political policies, speaking truth to power trumps respect for relativism every time.
Later in his article, Delzell asks:
How do [religious lefties] discredit [Romney's] policies without being asked questions about the history or doctrines of his religion? If they are asked specifically about those things, how in the world are they to respond? Those issues are way outside of their comfort zone.
If you want to know why Mitt Romney really makes the religious left nervous, instead of his theology, try starting with his expressed desire to broaden our imperialistic military endeavors abroad, his promotion of economic policies that unfairly benefit the privileged at the expense of the poor, his desire to cut social programs relied upon by our most vulnerable sisters and brothers, his legacy of opposition to equal rights for same-sex partners, and his new-found opposition to reproductive rights for women.

As far as discrediting Mitt Romney's stance on all of these issues, they are each open to moral and empirical scrutiny and condemnation quite independent of Romney's religious beliefs. To be frank, insofar as Romney is not relying upon a theological justification for the unjust policies he supports, I don't give two New Testaments about the history or doctrines of the LDS Church that seem to have Delzell's hackles raised. And despite the fact that Delzell imagines such a conversation to be outside of the comfort zone of the religious left, I guarantee that there are plenty of folks at this end of the theological and political spectrum who would love a chance to wax theological at Romney (relativism be damned!) should he begin appealing to religious justifications for his unjust policy positions.

As I have said time and time again, the single greatest asset that the religious left enjoys over the religious right is our recognition of the inherent value of religious pluralism and our willingness to do the dirty work required to make this pluralism a viable and vibrant force in our efforts for justice. The left's lack of preoccupation with Romney's Mormonism does not mean that there are not deeply committed Christians at this end of the political spectrum. It means that religious leftists have found ways to recognize Truth in the truths of others, and are willing to honor the integrity of moral and religious teachings different from our own.

For personal guidance on pluralism I turn to a passage, often quoted among Quakers, taken from the letters of John Woolman, an early American abolitionist, itinerant preacher, and witness for Truth:
There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names. It is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren.
It's words like Woolman's that continue to give me hope for a future of greater understanding, greater kinship, and greater love. Such a world is beyond possible. It exists already in the spark of God within each of us, would we but realize it. 

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