(This piece originally appeared in The Daily on July 31, 2011, under the title ‘Other/None Nation.’ It is no longer extant so I am posting it here)
In a celebrated early chapter of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” the narrator, Ishmael, takes the side of a pagan companion as they go about getting hired for an expedition. “He’s a member of the First Congregational Church,” Ishmael tells the ship owners when they express skepticism about his strange-looking friend’s faith. Pressed for details, he explains: “I mean, sir, the same ancient Catholic Church … the great everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshiping world … We all belong to that; only some of us cherish some queer crotchets noways touching the grand belief; in that we all join hands.”
It’s a classic American scene: Ishmael, a Presbyterian, arguing with the ship owners, both Quakers, about whether the true religion forbids or requires them to welcome the outsider. It’s also a scene that is playing itself out on the stage of Mitt Romney’s long-running bid to become the nation’s first Mormon president.
Religion in America has been varied and fractious from the start. Native American religious practices were and are very diverse. Roman Catholics gained early footholds in Florida and the Southwest. Puritans came to dominate New England; Anglicans, the coastal South. Quakers, Unitarians, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans and Russian Orthodox all made the long journey and began to grow. Jewish communities existed as early as the 17th century. Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists came too, each with numerous variations. Americans proved willing to innovate as well, developing the rich traditions of African-American Christianity, revival movements and Pentecostalism. And then there are the most distinctive homegrown American religions: Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and by far the largest, Mormonism.
To cobble some of these contradictory factions into a religious mainstream, American church and political leaders sometimes found it useful to stigmatize a group of beyond-the-pale outsiders. For a long time, Catholics and Jews filled this role, facing discrimination, violence and accusations of disloyalty. Today, Muslims are the usual target of wagon-circling bigotry.
Mormonism has shared the fate of all these “outsider” groups. Its promotion of polygamous marriage made the church the subject of persecution throughout the 19th century. And long after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the church to which most Mormons belong) banned polygamy in 1890, the church’s novel teachings on the Trinity and Biblical history — including the belief that Jesus came to America — have continued to place Mormonism outside of what many consider the Christian tradition.
Even though the Mormon conspiracy theories of yore have disappeared, a polygamy joke is still a reliable way for a late-night comic to get a snicker when Romney is in the news. The former Massachusetts governor carried this baggage during his first presidential run. And according to a recent Gallup poll, he carries it today: 22 percent of Americans say they are reluctant to vote for a Mormon candidate — more than say the same about Catholics or Jews.
Late in 2007, Romney took to the stage at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library to speak to the doubts of some of his fellow Americans. While he declared his belief in Jesus Christ as “the son of God and the savior of mankind,” Romney also argued — much as John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, had done decades before — for a distinction between the authority of church leaders and the power of the state. And while he spoke for the necessity of religion in public life, he rejected inquiring into the “distinctive doctrines” — the “queer crotchets” some of us cherish, if you will — of any candidate’s faith.
“Every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God,” Romney said, ticking off the virtues of Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, Lutheranism, Judaism and Islam. His conclusion — “We welcome our nation’s symphony of faith” — almost sounded like an homage to the shared “grand belief” voiced by Melville’s narrator two centuries ago on the wharf.
Given Romney’s own experience with religious intolerance, it should surprise no one that this time around he has not pursued the favor of Evangelicals with the same zeal as Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and his other competitors in the Republican primary. Indeed, Romney’s inability, as a Mormon, to embrace Christian identity politics may help him as much as it hurts. A March poll that showed Romney faring poorly among Republican evangelicals showed him with a commanding lead among Republicans claiming “other/none” as their religious label.
Increasingly, we’re a nation of Others and Nones, regardless of our denominational affiliation. The appeals to Christian identity that other candidates are making exclude more Americans than they include — not only Jews, Muslims and Mormons, but pro-choice Catholics, gay-friendly Methodists, Hispanic Pentecostals, social-justice-minded Evangelicals, agnostic Bikram yoga enthusiasts and the great, growing, ancient congregation of Those Who Sleep In On Sunday. Predicting the outcome of a presidential primary is a fool’s game. But for whatever it’s worth, Ishmael got his friend onto the boat.