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Conversation with… Panelists of Sept. 23 symposium on religion and politics

By Cindy Mindell

WEST HARTFORD – Since the 1980 presidential campaign, religion has played a significant role in American electoral politics, and 2012 is no exception. Three experts on American politics will discuss the intersection of these two forces at a symposium hosted by the University of Hartford on Sunday, Sept. 23.
The discussion will be moderated by Avinoam Patt, Philip D. Feltman Professor of Modern Jewish History at University of Hartford and Jilda Aliotta, director of The University of Hartford’s Governor M. Jodi Rell Center for Public Service, and a professor of politics and government at the university.
The three panelists gave previews of their talks to the Ledger.

Robert Bushman

“The Mormon Church and American Politics” – Richard Bushman
Historian emeritus at Columbia University, Richard Bushman is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). An award-winning author, has held Guggenheim, Huntington, National Humanities Center, and National Endowment for Humanities fellowships; and served as president of the Mormon History Association from 1985 to1986.

Q: What is the main issue you will explore in your talk?
A: I will address the topic of the hour: Is Mormonism going to affect Mitt Romney’s politics? We have every reason to think that a candidate’s most basic values will somehow emerge in their political outlook and behavior. Have the demands of politics forced Mitt Romney to suppress his Mormonism, or will there be some expression of them in his politics and manner? I will explore some of the fundamental Mormon values and practices that have shaped his life, because they affect all Mormons. If he is elected, will they affect his presidency?
I don’t think he’ll make the best of his Mormonism. The religion bears a strong pastoral urge, not just among people who are leaders, but it is a very communitarian religion, and followers are interested in helping each other out. The question is: Is that compatible with his very conservative, individualistic politics? How does he reconcile those two belief systems?
Mormons are very cooperative; the keynote is “We work together to get things done.” It is a collaborative and cooperative operation, and you have to be partisan in politics. Does that contradict something that is fundamental to Mormonism? I will not offer a critique of Mitt Romney, but rather discuss the tensions that the demands of politics set up.

Q: What are some of the tensions Romney is facing?
A: In Mitt Romney’s case, there is less of a tension than there may be in some religions. Lots of people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious” or “I’m spiritual but don’t attend a religious institution.” Mormon spirituality is “churched;” that is, a huge amount of religious impulses come out in congregational work – not just in worship but in relationships with others in the congregation. For Mormons, to be active in the religion means to have a church assignment and to actively work to help those in need in the congregation. If Mormons find someone who is inactive and who is struggling religiously, their remedy is to give them a job in the church. Your own spiritual growth depends on your involvement helping others. To that end, everyone in the congregation is given responsibility for three or four families, and check in on them monthly. The church is set up to help people find jobs, solve immigration problems, help families with their budgets, etc. The impulse that we can’t turn our backs on people in need is basic Mormonism and basic Christianity.

Q: In your opinion, how did Romney reconcile his religious behavior and his political behavior when he was governor of Massachusetts?
A: When he was governor of Massachusetts, he played the Mormon role and Mormons loved him as governor. He also worked across the aisle, which is something I like. But now you get him into this toxic partisan atmosphere, and I wonder whether he has been handcuffed by his right-wing supporters. Mormons are pragmatic: Let’s solve this problem; let’s face up to the needs of the poor. But I don’t know, if he becomes president, whether he will have the same kinds of policy instruments to address these issues on a national level.

Q: What is it about Mormonism that non-Mormons are concerned or leery about or don’t understand?
A: There are two things: the hierarchy factor and the “weirdness factor.” The hierarchy is same as with Catholic candidates: If elected, will they be submissive to Church hierarchy or to the Pope? There have been statements from Mormon Church leaders for over a century that political figures don’t have to follow the Church, but are free to meet the needs of their constituents. Mormons have been in American politics for over a century and there has been no example of the Church putting pressure on any of them. As to the “weirdness factor,” can a person who believes in gold plates and angels and items scattered in the margins of Mormon belief also possess basic judgment and rationality? I think that’s the reason Romney doesn’t want to address his Mormonism as part of the political debate.

Q: Was Mormonism an issue when George Romney was involved in politics?
A: It wasn’t. George Romney was in the shadow of Kennedy, who neutralized the religion factor by his speech, and he preceded the rise of the evangelical Right, which trained its followers to be suspicious and campaigned to inoculate Christians against Mormon missionaries and to discredit Mormonism. That effort began in the ‘70s, with all these pastors who quoted a long-term propaganda campaign saying that Mormons weren’t Christians – because missionaries were stealing away members of other Christian denominations.

Bilal Sekou

“African American Churches and American Politics” – Bilal Sekou
Associate professor of political science, Hillyer College, University of Hartford.
Has published articles on social and political participation by African Americans and public attitudes toward quality and integrated education in Connecticut. He sits on the board of directors of several organizations working to promote social and political change, including Connecticut Citizen Action Group, Connecticut Center For A New Economy, and Common Cause Connecticut.

Q: What will you be addressing in your talk?
A: I will take a look at the role of Black churches from a historic standpoint in the arena of politics, to talk about what I think are some of the strengths and weaknesses in that role. I will also look at the contemporary role of the church and the part it plays today and some of the
challenges and opportunities.
Black churches represent a diverse range of faith traditions; broadly speaking, there is no such thing as “the Black Church,” but it’s a metaphor that captures all of those denominations because of what it implies: an image of a powerful entity that can be organized to do certain things, that can be marshaled to bring about political, social, economic change. Like other Protestant counterparts, Black religious denominations are highly decentralized, local, and idiosyncratic, and represent a wide range, from Baptist to Methodist to Episcopalian to Catholic to Pentecostal and Holiness.
The history clearly demonstrates that not all Black churches have been politically active and there’s a range of reasons; I want to talk about those reasons for the “Black Church” functioning as a political force.

Q: How have Black churches been involved in past elections?
A: In the election of Barack Obama in 2008, certainly Black churches played a very prominent role in getting him elected, through voter education and registration efforts. In states with early voting – Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and others – Black churches got voters to go to the polls on the Sunday before the elections. That’s one thing the Republican-controlled state legislature changed in Florida. I imagine that the churches will play a very similar role between now and November to turn out the vote among their membership.

Q: Will that be more difficult in 2012?
A: In 2008, there was a great deal of enthusiasm to select Barack Obama to become president. Hillary Clinton’s campaign helped to raise levels of motivation in the Black community, as well as the experience under the Bush Administration, in terms of having issues of importance to the Black community neglected. It was seen as an historic opportunity to elect an African-American president, and levels of motivation were very high. It’s to be seen whether those levels will be reached this time. My sense is that the enthusiasm is not as strong, which doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t see large numbers of people turn out to vote. But there are some in the African-American community who have been disappointed in Obama’s inability to deliver things he promised or things people believed he would do when they elected him.
What I particularly worry about is that there have been changes to voting laws across the country which can have a significant impact on the turnout in some states. In 2008, Obama benefited from early voting, which Blacks were more likely to use than Whites. You’ve got a wide array of changes being made, such as shorter voting periods, and photo I.D.s being required to vote, making it tougher for convicted felons to participate; in Florida, something like 22 percent of Black males are ineligible to vote because they are convicted felons. The key to any election is getting out the vote, and these rules can have an impact on your ability to do that. Changes to rules in Florida have made it more difficult to do voter-registration drives: You have to turn in the registration form within 24 hours or pay a fine; even the League of Women Voters decided not to sponsor drives because of this serious fine.

Q: In that case, why do many Blacks support the Democratic party and candidates?
A: The Black community is very interesting in the sense that, given how religious people are, you would expect much more conservatism on the part of the community. On issues dealing with a social agenda of government activism and involvement, Blacks have a much higher expectation for government intervention in the economy than Whites. This grounds Blacks in a much more activist orientation, expecting government to play a prominent role.
The economic circumstances for many Blacks translate into much higher support for social-welfare and safety-net policies. On other issues like abortion and prayer in schools, you look at those numbers and wonder why more Blacks don’t vote Republican. But social and racial justice play very prominently in the Black community. To the extent that the Democratic party is one that defends social-welfare programs and policies, and is much more interested in a kind of redistribution of wealth and a progressive tax system, it’s really rational that the Black community would vote Democratic, especially because those issues have more prominence for them. Blacks have decided that these economic concerns are much more pressing.

Mark Silk

“The Lay of the Land: Religion and American Politics in 2012” – Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg
Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford
In 1996, Mark Silk became the first director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and, in 1998, founding editor of Religion in the News, a magazine published by the Center that examines how the news media handles religious subject matter. In June 2005, he was also named director of the Trinity College Program on Public Values, comprising both the Greenberg Center and a new Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture.

Q: What is the “lay of the land” this election season?
A: On the Democrat side, I think since Obama was elected, the push to reach out to religious folks has lessened, by and large. It’s been a low-key dimension of the Administration and they’ve done some things toward the latter part of the time in office that have annoyed some religious folks. That’s the issue on the table: to what degree Obama and the Administration will push and be pushed in a secular direction. On the Republican side, there’s been the Mormon factor. Since Romney became the presumptive nominee, there’s been a general sense in the press that the Mormon issue won’t play a big factor.
The question of Mormons per se is the extent to which the social issues – abortion and same-sex marriage – play a role in the campaign. Certainly the Republican party establishment and a lot of movement conservatives want the campaign to play out on economic lines; they think they have the slow pace of the recovery to beat up the president with. But the recent Todd Akin affair has put abortion on the table. The Republicans will say, try to be on a national Democratic ticket and be pro-life. That’s a huge dividing line for national candidates. The dividing lines are far clearer on social issues than on economic issues. Whether you believe that religion or religion-based issues should be so prominent when the country has bigger things to talk about, abortion has been the wedge issue for more than three decades.
The smart professionals on either side of the party line are particularly anxious to fight over social issues. They would rather fight on the grounds they understand better, where money is involved – the normal public-policy issues like health care and the defense budget.

Q: When did religion become such an important factor in American politics?
A: Religion has always played a role in our electoral politics. In the 19th century up until 1980, it’s mostly by religious grouping, and you could identify religious groups and the tendency to affiliate with parties: Catholics were mostly immigrants and mostly Democrats; Jews became strong Democrats during the New Deal, though that was not a constant; evangelicals were Democrats in the South because of the Civil War; White Protestants tend to be Republicans. What began to change, particularly in the ‘80s and ‘90s, was a division in the electorate in which more religious people tended to be Republican and those less religious tended to vote for Democrats, regardless of what religion they followed. This didn’t wipe out the tendency of particularly religious groups to vote one way or another. Among American Jews, Orthodox are more Republican; overall, Jews still vote for the Democrats and in some ways, more strongly than ever since the rise of the religious Right – because most Jews, when Christians are on the march, want to go in the other
People have been predicting the end of the Religious Right since the ‘80s, when it became a force. In terms of a multi-issue political movement, the conservative religious movement is the longest-running one in American history. Everything comes to an end eventually, but I wouldn’t expect this to disappear in my own lifetime.

Q: Does this make the U.S. and our politics different from other Western countries?
A: The tendency for religion to play such a role in politics has been a big factor in the U.S., apart from other developed Western countries, and there’s no sign of it weakening. If anything, it’s strengthened, as the least religious Americans are now pushing 20 percent of the population. They were pretty evenly divided in 1990 between Democrats and Republicans, and they are much more likely to vote and be Democratic now. Those who answer “none” to the question of religious affiliation are three-to-one more likely to vote Democrat, compared to evangelicals, who are three-to-one more likely to vote Republican. This is a new phenomenon: in the least religious, there is a sense that the Republican party has become so tied in with conservative religious folks and will advance religious values.
That is relatively new. People wanted to assure themselves that the president had a religion. Eisenhower, who was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and was not so religious as a military man, became Presbyterian when he’s president, so he’s considered “kosher.” Johnson consulted with Billy Graham and so did Nixon; in the Carter era, we saw a return of the evangelicals. The religion-based culture wars on a national level at the end of the ‘70s and in the 1980 campaign was a real dividing line. We’re now 32 years down the road and it’s only intensified.

The symposium is sponsored in part by the Connecticut Jewish Ledger; the M. Jodi Rell Center for Public Service University of Hartford; the Leonard E. and Phyllis Greenberg Endowment Fund at the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies, University of Hartford; and the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, Trinity College.
“New Frontiers in Church and State: The Significance of Religion in the 2012 Elections:” Sunday, Sept. 23, 7:30 p.m., Wilde Auditorium, University of Hartford, 200 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford | Registration required: (860) 768-4964 / mgcjs@hartford.edu.

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