When a good friend of mine told her mother she was gay, her mother’s response was not, “How could you do this to me?” She said, “How could you do this to your father? I knew I shouldn’t have signed you up for softball.” Eventually, though, she made her peace with it. “Okay,” she conceded, “you can have a girlfriend. As long as you find one who’s Jewish.”
So Rachel did. She spurned non-Jewish girls in order to appease her mother, in the process becoming an instant expert in the art of Paradoxical Acceptance: the ability to deflect one prejudice by embracing another one. Her mother’s fear of lesbians was overshadowed by her fear of ham. Rachel dodged the first fear by giving in to the second.
It turns out that modern politics is littered with similarly questionable moral exchanges. And what better place to look for them than everyone’s favourite travelling circus: the Republican primaries—currently under way in the God-fearing Palmetto State of South Carolina.
In the metaphor of Paradoxical Acceptance, Rachel’s mother is the American Christian right—the demographic that the front-running GOP candidates are falling over each other to court in order to win the South Carolina primary. Rachel is, in no particular order, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. Gingrich and Santorum are Catholics. Romney is a Mormon. What they are not, unfortunately, is evangelical: the core contingency of the hard Christian right. To finesse their denominational failings, the three candidates have wholeheartedly embraced the exclusionary moral agenda of the evangelical right, to the point where their zeal is indistinguishable from that of, say, Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann, both self-described evangelicals. The Christian right’s prejudice against “misguided Christians” (Catholics and Mormons) is overshadowed by their prejudice against the “secular liberal agenda.” The three candidates have protected themselves from the first prejudice by buying into the second.
As a result, religious politicians running for the Republican nomination have united under one bigotry umbrella to relay the following message: we may worship different gods in different ways but don’t worry, we feel the same way about gays, Muslims and the environment (We’re all unapologetically queasy). Mitt Romney, who once claimed to be “better for gay rights than Ted Kennedy,” is now far worse, and Newt Gingrich deeply regrets his past acknowledgement of what establishment evangelicals call the “unproven theory of global warming.” Santorum, of course, has always bought into these things, but his persistent loyalty to the knitted sweater vest may be the most subtle form of evangelical kowtowing ever devised.
The presence of Paradoxical Acceptance in American politics is relatively new. John F. Kennedy was subjected to some of the worst anti-Catholic prejudice and mistrust when he was running for president in the early ’60s, but his strategy in gaining the acceptance of the Protestant majority was entirely secular. His declaration that the “separation of church and state is absolute” (one he made in a speech before 300 clergymen of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960), and his promise that he would never allow government to become “an instrument of any religious group,” made his Protestant critics far less suspicious of his faith, and him in general.
In other words, Kennedy assuaged his potential detractors with promises that he would never inject his religion—or any other—into politics. But today’s Catholic and Mormon front-runners (minus Jon Huntsman, who just dropped out of the race, possibly disqualified for reasons of moderation) have done exactly the opposite. In fact, the only time the GOP candidates agree with one another, besides lambasting President Barack Obama, is when they’re decrying “anti-Christian bigotry” and pushing for socially conservative, faith-based policy initiatives: “don’t ask, don’t tell” and banning abortion among them. The wages of good kowtowing? This past weekend at a Texas convention, Rick Santorum received the coveted endorsement of the evangelical right’s most influential leaders.
For Kennedy’s contemporaries, pluralism and religious diversity were reasons to keep faith and politics separate. But for today’s candidates in the GOP field, diversity is cause for closing the gap completely. You’d think that pluralism in politics—even in the Republican party—would be conducive to progressive policy. But for this group of candidates, it’s conducive to something altogether different: wholesale discrimination and the advancement of a religious agenda, to the detriment of civil liberties.
The U.S. population doesn’t seem to need special reassurances to vote for a Mormon or Catholic as president. And this is a good thing. As Newsweek editor John Avlon points out, “The fact that 56 per cent of Americans now say that the U.S.A. is ready for a Mormon president—and that the prospect of another Catholic president seems literally unremarkable—are welcome signs of evolution as a nation.” It is an evolution, a good one in the larger context. But in the world of Republican leadership politics, this evolution comes at the expense of countless others.