Partisan Trump Card

Oh, brother. Today has brought unavoidably provocative columns from not one but two of my favorite conservatives-to-combat, the New York Times’ David Brooks and WaPo’s Michael Gerson.

In an earlier post I happily piggy-backed onto Ezra Klein’s demolition of Brooks’ column on Obama’s “ESPN masculinity.” But I can’t seem to find anyone similarly dealing with Gerson, who has compared recent religious remarks by the president with Mitt Romney’s Liberty University commencement address, and came up with the counter-intutive claim that Mitt’s a subtle and stylish theologian while Obama’s a ham-handed Bible-thumper.

Like I said: Oh, brother.

I’ve already recorded my impressions of Romney’s Liberty speech, and while I’ll agree with Gerson that it “gave evidence of creative, lively intelligence somewhere near the center of the Romney campaign machine,” I would strongly disagree with his conclusion that Mitt was expressing some restrained, respectful attitude towards those who examine the mysteries of faith and reach different conclusions than his own about the political implications. Indeed, the “creative, live intelligence” in the Romney speechwriting shop was mainly exhibited by Mitt’s ability to make subtle but unmistakable appeals to those who think there is a clear, absolute religious obligation to wage perpetual culture wars by voting for conservative political candidates–regardless of differences in theology.

I mean, really: much of Romney’s brief speech was a paen to Liberty’s patron, the late Jerry Falwell. Was there anything restrained about his willingness to draw a straight line from the Bible to the ballot box? Then there’s Chuck Colson, touted by Romney as the very model of someone who ignored theologicial differences in the pursuit of what Gerson hilariously calls a “moral ideal” that is “ethically rich.” Colson’s great political project was the relentless pursuit of an evangelical-Catholic alliance to wage partisan war on legalized abortion and the legitimacy of same-sex relationships.

I personally think there’s a strong case that what Gerson calls Romney’s “deft references to evangelical heroes” were actually shrewd dog-whistles to those who equate legalized abortion to slavery, the liberal “regime” with Nazi Germany, and church-state separation with persecution of Christians. But even if you disagree, I just don’t see any appeal to broad-minded tolerance in Mitt’s peroration that goes any further than asking evangelicals to ignore his entire LDS belief system in order to make common cause with him in the culture-wars and the 2012 elections.

Still, it’s Gerson’s attack on Obama as some sort of grinning, witless left-fundamentalist that leaves me in awe:

Agree or disagree with the policies Obama recommends, his arguments can’t be called sophisticated. They are the liberal political application of a “What Would Jesus Do?” wristband. In a mirror reflection of the religious right, Obama has a tendency to engage in partisan proof texting — which is divisive in service to any ideology. Saying “I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount” is a claim of divine authority that short-circuits democratic debate. Even when Obama changes his political views, Jesus somehow comes around to agreeing with him.

No, Michael, Barack Obama emphatically does not have a “tendency to engage in partisan proof texting” of scripture. He is famed for, and in fact has been frequently attacked by conservatives because of, his “tendency” to stress doubt as the proper attitude of faithful people confronted with political and cultural conflicts.

That was a major focus of his famous 2009 Notre Dame commencement address (compare it to Romney’s Liberty speech, BTW), in which he said:

[T]he ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.

This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame.

He repeated this refrain most recently in his 2012 Easter prayer breakfast remarks, in which he stressed (and got conservative flack for it, BTW) that even Jesus himself experienced doubt.

In citing scriptural support for his social agenda (earlier this year) or for supporting same-sex marriage, Obama has never claimed, as conservative evangelicals and Catholic traditionalists so often do, that no other interpretation of Christianity is acceptable. In his historic interview with Robin Roberts, he goes out of his way to note the religious views of people who disagree with his conclusion. Has Mitt Romney done this? Has Michael Gerson?

What’s ironic about Gerson’s take is that religious conservatives are forever blasting supporters of legalized abortion and same-sex marriage of being “secularists” without any spiritual dimension at all. But just let one of us cite our own religious views or biblical principles in support of our positions, and now we are using religion as a “partisan trump card!” I mean, really, Michael, how about beams and motes here?

Gerson completes his exercise in journalistic chutzpah by declaiming: “Injecting religion into politics is always a tricky business.” Well, you should know, brother. But it’s trickier still to inject politics into religion. That’s what the Christian Right–with which Mitt Romney sought to identify himself at Liberty, one of its hotbeds–has done to an extraordinary extent. If a few progressives, including the President of the United States, insist on claiming that we, too, should be granted a place at the table in the community of the faithful, it will be more than a little unjust to be accused of claiming the whole table for ourselves. Claiming God as a conservative Republican is what Mitt Romney’s religious legions do every single day.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.