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It may be thought that in these hard economic times, the economy will dominate the next election. This is probably true.  But it is a mistake to view social and economic issues as distinct categories.  In particular, issues like affirmative action, crime, and immigration may become more important to voters during economic hard times.

Welfare, affirmative action, crime, and social issues were important factors in the success of Reagan Republicanism twenty years ago. Affirmative action gains special salience during hard economic times and was used to great effect int he ’82 and ’90 recessions.  While affirmative action hiring policies may be annoying, limits on promotions and selective firings informed by racial preferences will sting more and divide the white working class even further from the Democratic coalition than these voters’ economic hard times alone would suggest.

The consensus among Republicans and Democrats alike has been not to make too much of a fuss about immigration and affirmative action.   Under Bush, conservatism was supposed to be “compassionate,” which meant policies indifferent to the native born population and hostile to the older American principles of thrift and limited government.  Everyone was so busy making money and flipping houses, it seemed petty to make too big of a deal about government services for illegal aliens or the quotas that prevailed in public sector and corporate hiring.  But as unemployment approaches 10%, the real swing voters–the white working classes–are realizing that these policies involve picking winners and losers in zero sum hiring and firing games.  At the same time, cigarette taxes and symbolic displays, such as Obama’s siding against law enforcement in favor of an obstreporous black colleague, remind these voters that Obama and the Democrats have less and less use for them and don’t identify with their values and interests.

These hard times create many opportunities for conservative politics.  For starters, spendthrift that Bush was, he had respect for private property and was substantially less inclined to expand the government’s reach into private life than Obama.  This difference would have been hard to fathom just a few years ago, but the Obama stimulus, health care, and moronic programs like “cash for clunkers” stand in sharp relief to Bush’s general tone.  Second, the argument that there are “jobs Americans won’t do” and that “diverse workplaces are important” will fall on deaf ears of whites who are out of work or deeply upside down many months into Obama’s administration.  Indeed, these cliches will be treated as insults and reinforce the suspicion that Obama does not mean to represent all Americans equally.

Republicans have long been afraid to make these arguments.  No one likes to be called racist and get disinvited from cocktail parties.  But voters are making these arguments for them:  on blogs, in private conversations, on the comment boards of newspapers, in anonymous posters, and on the insides of bathroom stalls.  The Republicans can either tie this rumbling into a coherent politics of fairness, preserving national identity, and sound economic policy, or they can be called racist all the same, while doing nothing to stand up towards the racist and socialist policies of the Democratic Party.

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Romney was supposed to deliver the speech of a lifetime, but, to me at least, I thought it was kind of weak.  He wants us to respect his religion and recognize that religion affects public policy, but he does not want anyone to delve into the substance of that religion.  In other words, “all religion is good religion.”  This is the very indifferentist impulse that ultimately destroys religious belief; it is the hallmark of the modern age. From Pakistan and Holland to Russia, England, Ireland, and America, it should be apparent that the substance and existence of a religion affects the culture, politics, and destiny of peoples.

My personal view on this is fairly mainstream:  in a free society with a democratic system, we should be concerned about a politician’s religious views primarily to the extent they affect his politics.  Mormons today, like other Christians, have fairly conservative and traditional views on matters like gay marriage, the role of the state, abortion, and the like.  There is little apparent prospect for a revival of their earlier practices of polygamy or racial discrimination. So, Romney’s Mormonism, by itself, should not be a disqualifier for conservatives to support him or any other Mormon candidate.  As a Catholic, I am sympathetic with Romney because it seems that he is a very decent human being, and that at least some of the opposition to him is not rooted in policy disagreement, so much as a kind of rumor-laden identity politics.

This opposition, particularly by Evangelicals, also stems from a purism about religion that ignores the contemporary battlefield. Today the problem is not which confessional view will mold legislation.  Rather, today in everything from school-provided sex education to overzealous social workers, there is an active war by political authorities to squelch the freedom of churches and families to live in accordance with Christian Truth.  Opposition to a meddling state is something that Christians, Mormons, Jews, and others can agree upon.

But Romney is no Orrin Hatch.  If he were, he’d have some credibility making the argument above.  Romney’s problems go beyond the hair cut, the glowing white shirts, and the motivational speaker demeanor.  His slickness in these matters extends to his willingness to say nearly anything to remain popular.  In Massachusetts he was pro choice; on the national stage, supposedly, he’s pro life.  Earlier he supported Bush’s radical amnesty plan; now he aims to please the Tancredo-Buchanan wing of the party with tough talk on immigration.

And this, in fact, is what concerns me about his speech and also a certain kind of Mormonism.  He does not mind people discriminating on the basis of theological beliefs; the whole point of his speech is that religion matters.  He wants us, rather, to accept him as one of us.  So he is pandering, at one and the same time, to the broad tolerance of the American people, while also flattering the “City on the Hill” apocalypticism of Evangelicals.  Romney’s attempt to placate the vague American Protestant consensus shows the same kind of slickness that he is combating in other areas.

Further, most Evangelicals know that Mormonism and its authorities have bowed to secular authorities before.  They have a cultish view of America and its Constitution, as if Christianity has not existed with vigor anywhere else.  Instead of defending the prohibition on polygamy a a necessary evil to preserve the core of the faith, the Mormon authorities claimed in 1890 a revelation allowed them to change their ways and famously renounced polygamy in order to be admitted to the union.  Later, as the times changed, Mormons rejected other unpopular stands on racial minorities and caffeine.  As a Catholic, all of these particulars deviate from my beliefs and the beliefs of my Church.  Yet I would expect such disagreement as a matter of course in encountering other religious views.  Religion is supposed to be eternal, unchanging, and reflective of the transcendent moral order of mankind.  Since most religions claim a pedigree in revelation–in other words something not accessible simply through common sense or deductive reasoning–it is natural the various religions disagree on a great many things.  A kind of progress in understanding may be possible within a particular religious framework, but that progress must be in the nature of a deepening of views, not their wholesale reversal.  Otherwise, revelation would be wholly unreliable . . . . not truth, but a noble lie.  The constantly changing beliefs of mainstream Mormons undermine the entire credibility of their faith.

Political and earthly life are supposed to be subordinate to God’s law and God’s revelation.  The finest testament of the Christian message is the testimony of the martyrs, who died for matters far more abstract than their administrative status in the Roman Empire.  Rivers of blood flowed in the Colosseum from Christians who would not worship the pagan gods of the Romans.  These stoic acts of resistance said in unmistakeably language that these people believed their faith was true, that they would not be swayed by earthly punishments, and that Christians would continue to believe what they had been taught with or without the blessing of political authorities. In other words, the deaths of the Christian martyrs told the whole world that worldly authorities could never conquer a believing Christian’s soul.

Conservative Christians worry that Romney’s candidacy is all about ego and earthly power.  We worry not that he will do particular things because of his religion beliefs, but rather than he would never decline to do something because of a religious belief and, worse still, that his beliefs are so lukewarm that they cannot ever demand conformity to a transcendent and unchanging revelation.

These are my first impressions.  I may still vote for him, but it will be in spite of this speech and its thoroughly conformist assumptions.

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