Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Interesting stuff over at National Review

Long-time readers of Montana Headlines know that we have not given up on that once-great conservative flagship periodical, in spite of its having given readers many reasons to do so over recent years.

One of the best things about the old National Review of the 70s and even 80's was that it represented a coalition -- which meant that the various squabbling voices of economic libertarians, defense hawks, social traditionalists, and so forth were heard in their strident glory. It meant that one size didn't fit all, and it was recognized that no member of the coalition had it all right.

That periodical took a sharp turn toward a lock-step approach where there were the political equivalents of "official enemies lists" and "Good Housekeeping Seals of Approval." Not only did this make for some nasty purges and infighting (which admittedly anyone around politics has to learn to live with,) NR began to commit the unforgivable journalistic sin of being tediously boring even when it wasn't shilling for the Republican party regardless of any sins it might commit.

Of late, NR has begun to awaken from its doldrums -- part of this is due to the fact that some of the editors are old enough to have all of their permanent molars. Even Jonah Goldberg has stopped advocating the invasion and recolonization of Africa. You've gotta start somewhere.

And there is a little dissent allowed -- granted, it tends to pop up more in the on-line settings than in the dead-tree edition, but it is still there.

Consider: the recent much ballyhooed news out of NR has been its endorsement of Mitt Romney. It is was a bit of an odd endorsement, not only in terms of the caveats and strained nature of the prose, but in light of the fact that NR has by no means made a habit of endorsing anyone at all for President, and if there has ever been a year without a clear and viable bearer of the conservative torch, it is 2008. (Can we have a do-over?)

There was the famous 1972 campaign where they wouldn't even endorse Nixon against a virtual socialist (a nice guy, McGovern, but very much ahead of his time in terms of of his visionary left-wing politics.) The NR crowd preferred instead to form a sort of "conservatives against McGovern" group, being unable to bring themselves to endorse someone with the economic policies of Richard Nixon.

Anyway, the endorsement is a done deal, although one wonders if the editorial board was hoping for a boost for their subscription rolls rather than a boost for Romney, given that one of them groused, half-jokingly, that they should maybe take the endorsement back, since Romney didn't mention it in today's Iowa debate.

Not that there wasn't disagreement. NR's resident curmudgeon, John Derbyshire, made a point of as much as endorsing Ron Paul.

In another priceless post, David Freddosso tells the story of signing a petition to get Mike Huckabee on the D.C. ballot. It takes place while he is sitting at the bar in his favorite watering hole ("It's part of my job. That's what I tell myself, anyway") and smoking a cigarette. And, pointing out that he'll probably vote for Ron Paul, he signs the Huckabee petition mainly to irritate a self-righteous someone at the next table who was harrassing the young petition-bearer over Huckabee's questions in the early 90's about whether people with AIDS should be quarantined until we knew more about how it was transmitted. Drinking, smoking, doing things just to irritate liberals -- now that's the NR we used to know and love.

And in one of the oddest bits of all, it wouldn't be at all surprising if Huckabee's recent off-hand comment to the NYT Magazine reporter about the Mormon belief that Jesus and Lucifer are brothers (that he says he was using as part of an illustration of just why politicians would do better not to answer questions about other candidates' beliefs) had its origins in the attention drawn to that belief in National Review itself, in David Frum's (negative) review of the Romney religion speech.

Frum's point was that when Romney stated that "Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind," he was trying to have it both ways -- trying to pander to evangelicals on the basis of Jesus Christ, yet forbidding them from asking more questions about what exactly he believes about Christ. Romney was saying, according to Frum:

It is legitimate to ask a candidate, "Is Jesus the son of God?"

But it is illegitimate to ask a candidate, "Is Jesus the brother of Lucifer?"

It is hard for me to see a principled difference between these two questions, and I think on reflection that the audiences to whom Romney is trying to appeal will also fail to see such a difference. Once Romney answered any question about the content of his religious faith, he opened the door to every question about the content of his religious faith.

Leaving aside the whole issue of where all of this leaves the Jewish, Islamic, pagan, and agnostic/atheist Americans who don't believe that Jesus Christ is "the Son of God and the Savior of mankind," it makes the whole thing rather sticky, and reminds us of the benefits of old-fashioned generic "American civil religion" -- you know, the kind that Ronald Reagan pretty much stuck to in any public references to religion.

Getting back to the whole Jesus/Lucifer thing: maybe this is a common item in the polemical arsenal regarding LDS for evangelical apologists (LDS and evangelical missionaries spend a lot of time competing for the same souls) -- we wouldn't know. But it was certainly news to us and probably to most people who read Frum's piece.

Given that Frum's piece was one of the few negative reviews of Romney's religion speech, it got circulated fairly widely, and thus probably made its way to the Huckabee campaign's attention and got talked about. If so, it would be quite an irony for the NR to be the source of a religious tempest in a teapot that will raise a few Christian eyebrows in places like Iowa and South Carolina -- on the very day their endorsement appeared.

We're glad to see that NR shows a few signs of getting back to the good old days of quasi-chaos, when internal dissension was more common in the conservative movement, and when lock-step talking points were something the left engaged in.


goof houlihan said...

Neither question is acceptable under the constituional prohibition against religious tests.

I don't recall anyone's undies in a bunch about George's religion--George Romney,that is.

What you see in the intervening decades is the establishmentarians from the christian right insinuating their religious tests into the election process.

Hence the interest in the younger Romney's religion. It's not coming from those who don't have religious tests; it's coming from those who do.

Montana Headlines said...

Actually, any individual voter can ask any question he wants and place any "test" he wants onto any candidate when deciding how to vote.

Look at all of the stupid reasons that people give for voting for this or that candidate (or for voting against this or that candidate,) and that much is painfully clear.

A "religious test" would be something in the Constitution that says that a member of a certain religion cannot hold office (as was the case in Britain vis a vis Catholics for a long time.)

There is no law in America that prevents anyone from holding office on the basis of religion.

But there are Mormons who will vote for a Mormon candidate in preference to a non-Mormon candidate, there are evangelicals who will vote for someone who shares their faith over someone who doesn't, and there are those who dislike evangelicals or Mormons or both who will vote against a candidate just because they don't like their religiosity.

That's not a "religious test" in the Constitutional sense. It's just people exercising their right to vote for whomever they want, for whatever reason they choose, and under the right of the secret ballot, they aren't obligated to tell anyone who they voted for, or why.

It's not just the elder Romney. Mitt Romney is the 4th or 5th Mormon to run for President. What is different this time is that Romney the younger made a specific play for the religious conservative vote, and has used evangelical religious language in doing so.

He has clearly modeled his approach on that of George W. Bush -- the first Republican candidate to so explicitly play the religion card (Jimmy Carter did it on the Dem side in '76.) The difference was that Bush could invite evangelicals to dig as deeply as they liked into his religion -- Romney can't.

As my post makes clear, we were better off when religious expression in public life was kept on a generic level. Thompson, McCain, and Giuliani have all kept their pitch to religious voters on that level -- so no-one is questioning them on that.

Obama perhaps uses even more explicit religious language and imagery than any Republican -- he, too, will find that if he wants to play that card, the specifics of his religion are going to be scrutinized by those he is playing to.