Fall 2012, Vol. 14, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog
on religion and politics 


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Table of Contents   

From the Editor:
Democrats Find Their Inner None

The Saints Come Marching In

I am a Mormon?

How Mormons and Evangelicals Became Republicans

Rowan Williams Lays Down His Burden

Honey, I’m Shrinking the Church

The Struggle to Keep Hospitals Catholic

“Religious liberty” in Court

The Democrats Dump God

Ayn No Way: Paul Ryan’s Problem

Netanyahu’s Anti-Obama Campaign

Varieties of Dylan’s Religious Experience




How Mormons and Evangelicals Became Republicans
by Mark Silk

In November, 78 percent of white evangelicals and 78 percent of Mormons voted for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, demonstrating once again that they are, by far, the most Republican of America’s numerically significant religious communities.

But this has not always been the case.

Through the middle of the 20th century, many evangelicals were dyed-in-the-wool Democrats. In the South—the evangelical heartland—the allegiance was a product of the partisan divide of the Civil War but owed its survival to more than the pull of the Lost Cause.

Economically hard-pressed evangelicals supported the three Democratic presidential candidacies of William Jennings Bryan because they liked his anti-Wall Street populism. They embraced Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal because it rescued them from the misery of the Depression.

Since the 1970s, however, evangelicals have moved inexorably into the GOP, transforming much of the old Confederacy into a bastion of Republicanism.

For their part, Mormons were once fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Their political transformation is evident from the electoral history of Utah—the only state in the union where a majority of the population belongs to a single religious body.

After achieving statehood in 1896, Utah voted for the Democrat in eight of the next 18 presidential elections, but since choosing Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964, it has gone Republican 13 times in a row. Of Utah’s first 11 U.S. senators, five were Democrats; but the state hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since Orin Hatch defeated incumbent Frank Moss in 1976.

Why have evangelicals and Mormons become the GOP’s most devout supporters?

With respect to the evangelicals, the usual answer is that the embrace of civil rights by the national Democratic Party after World War II drove white Southerners—who constitute a large portion of the evangelical vote—into the GOP. But while Southern evangelicals did come to feel alienated from national Democratic tickets, it was not until 1980 that they began to turn to the GOP at the state and local level, and by that time overt race-based politics had become a thing of the past.

As for the Mormons, the answer is that they are simply conservative folks who would naturally flock to the Republican banner. But that begs the question. Through the 1970s, the Democratic banner was planted well to the left of where it is now, yet many Mormons retained their allegiance to the party of Bryan and FDR.

For a sufficient explanation, it is necessary to recognize the importance of the idea of restoration in contemporary conservatism.

During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party became committed to taking America back to an imagined past of traditional moral, economic, and political values. How this happened and why it proved so appealing to evangelicals and Mormons cannot be understood apart from the restorationism embedded in both religious communities.

In the broad sweep of Christian history, there have been various times when reformers sought to reanimate the faith by fostering a return to the days of the Apostles or of the Early Church. The Protestant Reformation, especially, was committed to such a vision, doing away with what were considered unwarranted Catholic accretions to the faith.

The Puritans who settled in New England in the early 17th century brought this Reformation ideal with them. The emigrants embarking on the Arbella in 1630, for example, heard the famous preacher John Cotton urge that their new colony be in harmony with “the first Plantation of the Primitive Church.”

But while restorationism—primitivism—imbued Protestant Christianity’s American project from the beginning, its motivational force has been episodic. What concerns us here is its revival during the first decades of the 19th century, during the Second Great Awakening.

At the time, a number of new religious groups formed with restorationism at the core of their identity. Notable among them were the followers of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, who were so determined to recover the basic tenets and practices of the Early Church that they insisted on calling themselves just “Christians.” (Today the denomination they founded is known as the Disciples of Christ.) There were also the Landmark Baptists, who claimed to be descended through an unbroken succession of congregations practicing adult Baptism back to the time of Jesus.

Like the other groups, the Mormons began by seeking to revive Primitive Christianity, in their case through the restoration of prophecy and the discovery of a new testament of Jesus Christ. But under Joseph Smith’s continuing prophetic inspiration, they went beyond this apostolic restoration.

As the contemporary scholar of Mormonism Jan Shipps has shown, the next step in the Mormon restorationist project was to revive the religious economy of ancient Israel, through an Abrahamic restoration that included the building of a temple, the specification of twin priesthoods, the establishment of patriarchy, and the physical ingathering of the faithful as a sacred community.

Finally, the Mormon prophet imparted a set of esoteric tenets—tiered heavens, proxy baptisms, celestial marriage, and eternal progression toward godhood—that would lead humanity back to a celestial existence through what came to be called “the restoration of all things.” All in all, it is fair to say that no American religious community embraced the restorationist ideal more thoroughly or did more to make it a reality than the Mormons.

Not surprisingly, there was intense conflict among the 19th-century restorationists over what exactly was to be restored—doctrinally, organizationally, liturgically, and otherwise. After the Mormons began attracting a significant number of Campbellite defectors, Alexander Campbell called Joseph Smith “as ignorant and as impudent a knave as ever wrote a book.”

The Landmark leader J.R. Graves, one of the most truculent characters in all of American religious history, had no use for any denomination but his own and devoted much of his energy to attacking the others.

What the antebellum restorationists shared was the conviction that, as Richard Hughes, its leading historian, puts it, the “first times” were “in some sense normative or jurisdictional for contemporary belief and behavior.” In addition, they all embraced the millennarian conviction that getting the program right would prepare the way for Christ’s second coming. In this respect, they shared a profound spiritual optimism.

They also shared the view that America itself would play an important role in their respective religious projects. Alexander Campbell nurtured the hope that the basic Christianity he was promoting would come to serve as the nation’s civil religion, such that the United States would become the foundation of the millennial age. Graves promulgated a form of Christian republicanism that saw America as “the hope of the world” and “pre-eminent among the nations of the earth.”

And in Joseph Smith’s vision of the New World, the founding of the nation prepared the way for the renewal of prophecy. As the prophetic allocution recorded in Smith’s 1835 Doctrine and Covenants puts it: “And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose.”

To be sure, persecution would lead the Mormons to see the United States as a more problematic order of the ages, and send them on a journey to build their restored Zion in what was then Mexico. But in the beginning they, along with other antebellum restorationists, embraced a millennarian Christian vision of American exceptionalism. From it, subsequent American missions to redeem the world and remake it in their image—whether through expansion according to Manifest Destiny or by going to war to promote our values—derived much of their spiritual oomph.

Within the religious traditions we’re concerned with here, however, the restorationist sun went into eclipse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The forebears of today’s evangelicals were drawn to the dark world of dispensational premillennialism, scrutinizing current events for evidence of the End Times, when the Antichrist would come to power and the battle of Armageddon take place. To avoid this imminent Tribulation, the saved would be raptured to heaven to await Christ’s second coming and his subsequent (ergo pre-millennial) thousand-year rule. Given what lay ahead, the premillennialists abandoned hope of restoration in favor of hunkering down and getting their personal spiritual acts together.

For their part, the Mormons were compelled to abandon a major portion of their lived restorationist project during their final push for statehood in the early 1890s. To join the union, they gave up both plural marriage and the LDS political kingdom—including the People’s Party that all Mormons belonged to (as opposed to the Liberal Party, to which those they called Gentiles belonged).

This caused, in the words of Jan Shipps, “an enormous wrenching within Mormon culture.” What followed was a period of assimilation to the norms of American society and a consequent weakening of the distinctiveness of Mormon life.

In Age of Fracture, his important recent account of America in the latter part of the 20th century, Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers determines the dominant characteristic of the 1980s  to be nostalgia: “As the very language for society threatened to break into fragments, the past became a sphere onto which desires for community and cohesion could be projected.”

Even as he recognizes this longing for an idealized if not utterly mythical America, Rodgers laments the impulse to escape from history with all its complexities and confusions, and it is easy to share his exasperation. But as an engine of change, nostalgia alone cannot account for the transformation of American political culture that the 1980s brought about.

What the decade marks is the beginning of a new restorationist era—one powered by the tradition of Christian Primitivism but dedicated now to the restoration of America itself. In this New Restorationism, the place of the Apostles has been assumed by the Founding Fathers. The object of the exercise is the recovery of what might be called Primitive Americanity.

That the era features a religious dimension is plain enough from the rise of what was first termed the New Christian Right. Rodgers identifies it with an End Times theology that, he writes, “swept through evangelical Protestant culture by the 1970s and 1980s.” That characterization, however, obscures the shift in evangelical sensibility from the one decade to the next that made the New Christian Right possible.

The evangelical 1970s were emblemized by the runaway bestseller, The Late Great Planet Earth. Written in 1970 by Hal Lindsey, a staff member of the Campus Crusade for Christ, it was a book that presented premillennialism in its classic form, reading the signs of the times to prophesy the imminent arrival of the Antichrist. America, according to Lindsey, was immersed in sin and depravity, and fated to suffer along with the rest of the world; he had nothing to offer but gloomy forebodings about its fate.

The 1980s, by contrast, showed evangelicalism marching confidently back into the center of American culture—a culture it sought to reclaim. Suddenly the End Times did not seem so imminent, or so dire. What had happened?

Embedded even in the depths of separatist fundamentalism there was, as the historian Joel Carpenter puts it, “a yearning to recapture Christian America” derived from “Protestant memory and hope of millennial dimensions.” Indeed, the leading fundamentalist of the mid-20th century, Carl McIntire, believed that the Founding Fathers had “known the ‘mind’ of God”; he conceived of himself as embroiled in a “fight to the finish in the interests of our heaven-sent Christian faith and the Bible-inspired American way of life and government.”

It was by drawing on this restorationist undercurrent in fundamentalism that a new political movement came into being. In the late 1970s, two books by prominent evangelical authors, Peter Marshall, Jr.’s The Light and the Glory and Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live, helped persuade large numbers of their co-religionists that America’s founding was the embodiment of religious purpose that needed to be recovered.

In The Battle for the Mind, a book written under the influence of Schaeffer in 1980, a fundamentalist Baptist pastor and political activist from southern California named Tim LaHaye took on the End Times problem directly. While the Tribulation—the seven-year reign of the Antichrist—was unavoidable, the “pretribulation tribulation,” that would “engulf this country if liberal humanists are permitted to take total control of our government” was “neither predestined nor necessary,” LaHaye wrote.

According to him, Christians needed to get involved in politics in order to prevent the “humanist onslaught” from destroying America’s ability to promote worldwide missionary activity. Evangelical activists could thus have their premillennial cake and eat it too.

Armed with the historical and theological rationales of Marshall, Schaeffer, and LaHaye, the New Christian Right burst on the national scene in the person of the fundamentalist Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell, whom LaHaye had encouraged to found Moral Majority, Inc. in 1979. In Listen America!, a tract for the times published in 1980, Falwell sounded the restorationist clarion: “I believe that Americans want to see this country come back to basics, back to values, back to biblical morality, back to sensibility, and back to patriotism.”

These basics, it’s worth noting, included low taxes, small government, free market principles, a strong defense, and support for the State of Israel. Most importantly for Falwell, America was again a sacred enterprise, established under God.

“I am positive in my belief regarding the Constitution,” he wrote, “that God led in the development of the document.”

Pat Robertson, the religious broadcaster who succeeded Falwell as the religious right’s most important figure in the late 1980s, was even more of a restorationist. In 1986, he gave a talk at Yale Law School (his alma mater) titled, “Restore America to its Jeffersonian Ideals.” When he ran for president two years later, his campaign slogan was, “Restore the Greatness of America Through Moral Strength.”

“We will not rest,” Robertson concluded his address to the 1992 Republican National Convention, “until we restore the greatness of America through moral strength.” The instrument for the Robertsonian restoration was the Christian Coalition, which he launched in 1989.

In The Christian Coalition: Dreams of Restoration, Demands for Recognition, Justin Watson distinguishes between the founder’s vision of restoring a Christian America and the more secular restorationism of Ralph Reed, the young political operative who served as the organization’s first executive director. Both rhetorical approaches served the Republican Party well, bringing evangelicals into the fold via year-round grass-roots mobilization and election-time voter guides that were widely distributed in conservative churches around the country.

Had American evangelicals traded in their premillennialism for postmillennialism—the classic 19th-century Protestant conviction that Christ would come again after good Christians had spent 1,000 years making the world a better place?

The answer was no. But by re-sacralizing the American project, evangelical leaders softened the harsh portrait of irreversible corruption that, according to classic premillennialist thinking, doomed America to suffer the fate of the rest of this world.

It thereby became possible, for example, to adopt the teachings of dominionism, an explicitly postmillennialist theology that accorded Christians a divine mandate to control all social and cultural institutions, a God-given duty to claim political power. Dominionist thinking drew heavily on the work of the Calvinist theologian R.J. Rushdoony, who advocated the re-institution of Old Testament law in modern society—a Christian “reconstruction” of politics and law that would attest to God’s dominion over society and prepare the earth for Christ’s return.

Dominionism has been the source of some hyperbolic fears on the left—most recently during the past election cycle, when Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann were reported to have close associations with noted dominionists. There can be no doubt, however, that it has played a significant role in the home schooling movement, and among the professorial elite educating young evangelicals for positions of power in American business and government. (See Seth Dowland, “The New Dominionist Politics,” Religion in the News [Spring 2012]).

At the same time, by formally holding on to premillennialist eschatology, evangelicals found themselves committed to an image of America as their own beleaguered Christian (or perhaps Judeo-Christian) domain—an ecclesial, even a familial community of the saved.

It is worth noticing that the progression of preeminent national religious right organizations went from the Moral Majority to the Christian Coalition to Focus on the Family. The last of these, founded by child psychologist James Dobson, catapulted itself to the top by supplying evangelicals with instructions on traditional child-rearing and that old-time domesticity.

When Dobson moved the organization from Southern California to Colorado Springs in the 1991, it joined Navigators, Young Life, the International Bible Society and nearly 100 other evangelical organizations there at the foot of Pike’s Peak. Some have called it the Vatican of American evangelicalism, but as an evangelical Zion, Colorado Springs is better thought of as the Salt Lake City.

What of the denizens of Salt Lake itself? Just as, after the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis of Palestine restored the religion of ancient Israel by replacing the Temple cult with a set of elaborate rules and practices governing worship and daily life, so in the latter part of the 20th century did LDS leaders undertake to reestablish the distinctiveness of their faith tradition.

In The Angel and the Beehive, sociologist Armand Mauss describes how the Mormons’ post-statehood adaptation to American society’s cultural and intellectual norms gave way after World War II to a period of “renewal and retrenchment.” In this “retrenchment Mormonism,” Mauss saw an effort to set the faithful apart in five ways: renewed emphasis on continuous revelation through modern prophets; a focus on temples, temple work, and genealogical research; expansion and standardization of the missionary enterprise; family renewal; and expansion of formal religious education in the service of parochial indoctrination.

This period of “renewal and retrenchment” can best be seen as a revival of the restorationist project that had suffered so serious a setback in the 1890s. Key elements were a re-emphasis on the Book of Mormon, which centered the Mormon experience on the redemptive American experience; and the practice of Correlation, which, by establishing uniformity in religious practice, ensured that an increasingly globalized church—the Mormon diaspora—could be kept under control as a virtual geographic kingdom.

In one important respect, this revived restorationism represented a departure from old-time Mormon values. As is regularly pointed out with some glee by liberals, the primitive LDS approach to economic life was communitarian if not socialistic, with property held in common and a social welfare system dedicated to taking care of those in need.

Nor did statehood, which altered so much, make for a sea change in LDS economic philosophy. During the New Deal, Utah’s Mormons were as likely to avail themselves of government assistance programs as the citizens of any other state. It was only after World War II that laissez-faire economics, accompanied by staunch anti-Communism, began to spread among the Saints.

The key figures in the shift were Ezra Taft Benson, the former Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower Administration who became president of the LDS Church in 1985; Benson’s son Reed, an active member of the John Birch Society; Ernest Wilkinson, president of Brigham Young University; and W. Cleon Skousen, a sometime member of the BYU faculty who worked for the F.B.I. and later served as chief of police in Salt Lake City.

By the 1970s, writes Matthew Bowman in his new book, The Mormon People, Benson’s “moralistic libertarianism had gained a vocal following in the church.” Concurrently, LDS leaders Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce McConkie wrote influential theological works that incorporated elements of Protestant premillennialism into the traditional Mormon idea of the End Times.

Smith’s and McConkie’s approach was adopted by Skousen in a series of popular books that made much of the Book of Mormon’s sacralization of the American continent. In such late works as The Majesty of God’s Law: It’s Coming to America and The Cleansing of America, he went so far as to predict that America would be reborn as a “Zion society” with the entire population organized into Mormon wards and a restored Constitution that eliminated political parties and popular voting for the president. The latter volume, written in 1994 (though published posthumously only in 2010), portrayed an America purged of wickedness and serving as a refuge for Mormons from around the world while the rest of Planet Earth suffered through an End Times scenario culminating in the Battle of Armageddon.

To be sure, Smith, McConkie, and Skousen were not always in tune with what the top leadership of the LDS church wanted, and from time to time they had to be reined in. But at a popular level, their ideas proved difficult to control. Among other things, they prepared the way for the restoration of Mormon political unity—within the Republican Party.

Moving along parallel lines, the ascendant restorationism of both evangelicals and Mormons must be seen as a response to that raft of changes in American society conveniently denominated “the Sixties”: the civil rights movement, the War on Poverty, Medicare, Medicaid, women’s liberation, gay rights, abortion—to say nothing of long hair, sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. The argument here is that these social disturbances activated the restorationist gene in both religious traditions—the way environmental factors interact with a genetic predisposition to cause cancer in an individual.

Or, to switch metaphors, both traditions had in their intellectual armories the conviction that progress requires a return to an earlier, pristine time, and the belief that the American project is intimately connected with such progress. Faced with unwanted changes in society they were anxious to reverse, both reached for the same weapons, and in Ronald Reagan found a politician who understood where they were coming from.

Reagan’s favorite trope came from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says to the disciples, “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

Its source in American rhetoric is the well-known shipboard address given by John Winthrop to the same Puritan colonists who heard John Cotton’s injunction to recreate the Primitive Church. In latter-day political discourse, it was first employed by President-elect John F. Kennedy in a speech to the Massachusetts legislature in 1961.

But Reagan made it his watchword, using it in announcing his candidacy for president in 1979, in accepting the Republican nomination in 1984, and in bidding farewell to the nation in 1989. The image perfectly embodied his project of restoring America after the country’s defeat in Vietnam and the so-called malaise of the Carter years.

Being a city on a hill meant serving as that “light unto the nations” that Isaiah identified as Israel’s special role in the world and that the antebellum restorationists had long since attributed to America. As Reagan put it in his 1979 announcement, “A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny; that we will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and, above all, responsible liberty for every individual that we will become that shining city on a hill.”

It’s important to recognize is that this ideal was not grafted by Reagan onto his political program as a mere rhetorical device. It was rooted in his own religious identity.

Although Reagan’s father was a Roman Catholic and his parents married in a Catholic church, his mother had herself baptized into the Disciples of Christ the year before he was born, and she brought him up in the church. At the age of only 11, he decided that he was ready to be baptized as well—as the result (he later recalled) of reading That Printer of Udell’s, a novel published in 1902 by a devout Disciple named Harold Bell Wright.

Written in the spirit of Charles Monroe Sheldon’s 1897 best-seller In His Steps, That Printer of Udell’s advances a conservative social gospel program of helping the poor, but with distinctly Campbellite elements. It is laced with criticism of doctrinal differences among the Protestant churches, and in contrast to Sheldon’s focus on the regeneration of individuals, Wright is concerned to show how Christ-like activity can make one’s community into a model for others.

The story centers on Boyd City, a prosperous Midwestern industrial town suffering from the ills of urban life—alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. Thanks to the efforts of two men, a noble journeyman printer of lower-class origins and the pastor of “Jerusalem Church,” it is by the end of the novel transformed into “an example to all the world, for honest manhood, civic pride and municipal virtue.” Boyd City was, simply, Reagan’s first city on a hill.

The influence of the Disciples did not cease after Reagan formally joined his hometown church as a pre-adolescent. Ben Cleaver, the minister, became a kind of surrogate father, giving him advice, teaching him to drive, and helping him get into Eureka College, the Disciples’ institution of higher learning in Illinois. Cleaver spoke of how deeply impressed his own father had been by hearing Alexander Campbell give a speech in Missouri before the Civil War.

There can, in short, be little doubt that Reagan’s adult worldview harked directly back to what historian Joe Creech has termed the Disciples’ “unashamed city-on-the-hill patriotism.”

Nothing better expresses the restorationist vision that Reagan brought to the 1980s than his famous 1984 campaign ad, “Morning in America,” which was expressly designed to convey the idea that under him the nation had experienced a new beginning—or more precisely, was re-experiencing its beginning: “It’s morning again in America,” the voice-over intones. “Why would we ever want to return to where we were, less than four short years ago.”

The restorationism of the Reagan presidency was anything but one-dimensional. Along with traditional social mores and old-time religion, it included a return to 19th-century capitalist ideology via deregulation, union-busting, and a revived belief in “the magic of the market.” Nothing, however, was more emblematic of the era than the embrace of constitutional originalism.

Originalism derived from the plausible proposition that if the intent of the framers of the Constitution were not taken seriously, then the document would amount to little more than whatever a given Supreme Court wanted it to mean. So far as conservatives were concerned, that was just the problem with the Court’s determination that prescribed prayer and Bible reading in the public schools violated the First Amendment and its discovery of a constitutional right of privacy that guaranteed a woman’s right to obtain an abortion.

In 1985, the new attorney general, long-time Reagan aide Edwin Meese, announced that the administration would henceforth pursue a “jurisprudence of original intention,” resurrecting “the original meaning” of constitutional provisions—“the plain words as originally understood.”

To be sure, the originalist jurisprudence of the 1980s was not an actual yearning for the late 18th century. That was a time of slavery and indentured servitude, of the taxation of religious dissidents to pay for the standing clergy of the dominant faiths, that, Daniel Rodgers writes, “hardly resembled the early 1950s that the Warren Court’s critics actually yearned to restore.” Yet over time, originalism would be used to make the case for such 19th-century doctrines as the right of states to nullify federal laws, and even for a return to the election of U.S. senators by state legislatures.

More important, originalism strengthened belief in the sacrality of the Constitution—what First Amendment scholar Sanford Levinson called “constitutional faith” in a book of that name published in 1988. For Levinson, it made no sense to treat the Constitution as the equivalent of the tablets vouchsafed by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. But a quarter century later, constitutional faith is stronger than ever.

The most conspicuous restorationist movement in America over the past several years has been, of course, the Tea Party. Its very name addresses a founding vision of the country: patriotic revolutionaries protesting taxes imposed by an alien oppressor. In the restored version, Democrats are the occupying force of Redcoats; President Obama, King George III.

The early message of the Tea Party was that it was a secular movement concerned with taxation, not religion. As surveys of the movement gradually made clear, however, Tea Partiers were not the libertarian army they were first reported to be, but for the most part the same foot soldiers who had made the religious right so potent a force in the Republican Party. They included not only many evangelicals but also a significant portion of the Mormon population—as evidenced by Sen. Bob Bennett’s third-place finish behind two Tea Party candidates at Utah’s GOP nominating convention in 2010.

By the spring of 2010, the allegedly secular ideology of the Tea Party had acquired a powerful theological spin, as conservative media star Glenn Beck toured the country with David Barton, the evangelical publicist devoted to demonstrating that America had been founded as a Christian nation. This year’s strenuous literary effort by Barton to reclaim Thomas Jefferson for Christianity, titled The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, would have astonished Jefferson’s contemporaries, to say nothing of the sage of Monticello himself. Beck, who wrote the introduction, is himself a convert to Mormonism.

He has revived the works of Skousen—or at least ones like The Five Thousand Year Leap: 28 Great Ideas That Changed the World, which soft-pedals distinctly Mormon messages. (Writes Beck in his forward, “Promise me that you will read this book cover to cover in the next 30 days.”) The twenty-eighth great idea is: “The United States has a manifest destiny to be an example and a blessing to the entire human race.”

The disguised sluicing of Mormon influences into today’s conservative movement is an interesting phenomenon in itself. Beck, for example, once aired an excerpt of an anti-Communist speech by Ezra Taft Benson without so much as mentioning that Benson had been president of his church. The neo-realist painter Jon McNaughton has achieved viral fame for works such as “One Nation Under God,” which shows Jesus standing in front of a host of American worthies with a copy of the Constitution as a group of ordinary Americans look on piously from his right, and a collection of impious elitists to his left turn away. But although he is a devout Mormon, McNaughton does not advertise his religious identity.

Central to the restorationist project of the Tea Party has been an explicit appeal to American exceptionalism. A concept something like Reagan’s city on a hill and Skousen’s 28th great idea, it was now pressed into service against allegedly anti-exceptionalist Democrats bent on inflicting their godless socialism on the country.

The 2010 Beck-Barton tour, billed as “American Revival,” had Beck telling his audiences that they had been born to “save American exceptionalism.” Over the past couple of years, Republican politicians have come to believe that that’s indeed what they were born to do.

In August of 2010, Mike Huckabee said, “To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation.” Marco Rubio, the Tea Party insurgent who succeeded in winning election to the U.S. Senate from Florida, brought David Barton along with him to rallies around the state where he campaigned on the promise to protect American exceptionalism.

“To renew American exceptionalism, we must recognize that our present crisis is not merely economic, but moral in nature,” Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana told the Economic Club of Detroit in November. “As we seek to build national wealth, we must renew our commitment to the institutions that nurture the character of our people—traditional family and religion.” In her 2010 book, America By Heart, Sarah Palin asked, “How do we embrace our exceptionalism at home and abroad? How do we take this great awakening among the American people and turn it into a positive force for reclaiming our country and our heritage?”

The most enthusiastic Republican exceptionalist proved to be Newt Gingrich. “President Obama’s secular socialist philosophy is profoundly in conflict with the heart of the American system and is a repudiation of the core lessons of American history,” Gingrich told an audience at Liberty University in October of 2010, explaining that American exceptionalism was “a term which relates directly to our unique assertion of an unprecedented set of rights granted by God.”

The following year, Gingrich came out with A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters, a book that systematically set out to make exceptionalism work as a political wedge issue. While Americans “still overwhelmingly believe in American Exceptionalism,” writes Gingrich, there is a “determined group of radicals in the United States who outright oppose American Exceptionalism.”

One of their fellow travelers was Barack Obama, who was judged woefully lukewarm when he declared at an overseas news conference early in his presidency, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” In his book, Gingrich allowed that since that time the president had begun speaking as if he really did believe America was exceptional. But speaking without acting to shrink the size of government was not enough.

“The American revolutionaries,” wrote Gingrich, “did not shed their blood for the welfare state; nor did they aim to replace the arbitrary rule of King George and his ‘multitude of New Offices’ and ‘swarms of Officers,’ as stated in the Declaration of Independence, with their own oppressive bureaucracy. Instead, they fought for individual liberty—and that made America an exception among all other nations.”

If Gingrich was the most verbose, American exceptionalism did service on the lips of all the 2012 Republican presidential aspirants. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry regularly appealed to it, as did Herman Cain, who in March 2011 published a short manifesto in its defense in the American Spectator. “We have a president right now who thinks America’s just another nation,” Mitt Romney declared at a debate in South Carolina. “America is an exceptional nation.”

The extent to which restorationism had embedded itself in the Republican Party was difficult to exaggerate.

Gingrich’s campaign book ends with the lines: “The fight to renew America begins in 2012. I ask you to join us in this effort to restore America as a nation like no other.” In July of 2011, Rick Perry told the Western Conservative Summit in Denver, “Let us restore the nation’s principles. If we don’t, who will? If not Now, When?”

On October 1, 2011, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly filed an application to trademark the slogan “Restore the USA,” which his company quickly proceeded to affix to bumper stickers, keychains, mugs, t-shirts, and jackets.

Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign slogan was “Restore America Now”; his platform, the “Restore America Plan.” Amazon had on offer a “Michele Bachmann for President” pin that read, “Restoring constitutional conservative values.”

As for the 2012 Republican Party Platform, its first two sections were titled “Restoring the American Dream: Rebuilding the Economy and Creating Jobs” and “We The People: A Restoration of Constitutional Government.” “Restore” and its cognates appeared no fewer than 21 times in the text of the document. The title of the last section? “American Exceptionalism.”

And then there was the name of Mitt Romney’s Super-PAC: “Restore Our Future.” In a New York Times Magazine article in July, Bill Burton, the former Obama aide who was in charge of the president’s Super-PAC, expressed frustration that the Republicans had registered every conceivable PAC name for themselves.

“Romney’s Restore Our Future—that doesn’t even make sense,” Burton said. “That’s probably why they were able to get it.” But “Restore Our Future” made perfect sense if you recognize that for Mormons and evangelicals alike, restoration has everything to do with bringing about the future you want to happen. It is the millennial expectation that lies at the heart of American restorationism.

As Romney put it after laying out a portrait of an idealized American past at the end of his nomination acceptance speech: “If I am elected President of these United States, I will work with all my energy and soul to restore that America, to lift our eyes to a better future.”

That restorationist Republicanism had a strong religious dimension was evident enough. Televangelist James Robison, who helped preside over the launching of the national religious right three decades ago, concluded his 2012 book, Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family, and Freedom Before It’s Too Late, with a plea for “the renewal of our culture and the restoration of our nation.” In October, Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, whose slogan is “Restoring America’s Greatness & Founding Principles,” sent out a “Dear Fellow Christian” email that read:

“If you believe that the United States of America was founded by God to be a beacon of light to a darkened world, then don’t let this opportunity go by without signing up to Get Out the Vote on November 6, 2012. We need you to stand in the gap to restore this country and this government to our founding principles. If we put God first and turn to Him again, we will be restored to our rightful place as a leader to the world.”

In August, Rep. Todd Akin won the Republican senatorial primary in Missouri with strong backing from religious conservatives, including a campaign ad by David Barton. Like Barton, Akin had long been committed to the view that the founding fathers were deeply religious Christians who expected the country they established to remain so.

In 2009, he made a video for an online evangelical ministry calling on Americans to emulate the Pilgrims in using the Bible as a “blueprint” for economics, education, and government. He is well known in Missouri for donning colonial garb to host annual Fourth of July picnics at his home.

“This campaign is about reclaiming our God-given values, rebuilding the American Dream, and restoring the America we love,” he declared in his victory speech after his primary victory. “This is our call. This is our vision.”

It is important to understand that restorationism is a vision, not a political theory or an economic ideology. To ask a Todd Akin how he can believe both in preventing the government from regulating the economy and in enabling it to enforce moral values is beside the point.

“Restoring the America we love” has everything to do with bringing back a world we have (supposedly) lost. To be sure, restorationists are not the only Americans called to a vision of the future. But the vision has special force when it is also a dream of the past.

Recognizing that the conservative movement of our time is restorationist helps explain its strength, longevity, and diversity. If the 1980s had merely been a nostalgic reaction to “the Sixties,” the movement would have played itself out a long time ago. But because it draws on a deep-seated religious tradition, it has lasted longer than any multi-issue political movement in American history.

Just as in the antebellum period, the new restorationism is capable of accommodating strange bedfellows. That is why evangelicals and Mormons, theological adversaries and competitive proselytizers though they are, have been able to associate their futures so readily in the same political party.

Lest any of his co-religionists thought otherwise, Franklin Graham devoted his October column in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s magazine to the question, “Can an evangelical Christian vote for a Mormon?”

“We need something like what Jerry Falwell did in the 1980s,” wrote Graham. “We need a ‘moral majority’—made up of Christians, Jews, Mormons, Catholics and many others of faith—to come together to take a stand for our religious freedoms and rights.

“In recent days, President Clinton said that President Obama ‘has a plan to rebuild America from the ground up.’ But God-fearing Americans have no desire to see America rebuilt—but rather restored. To ‘rebuild it’ would be to create a new nation without God or perhaps under many gods. This was never the intent of those who shed their blood for the freedom to worship as ‘one nation under God.’

“I pray that all Christians and God-fearing Americans, will put aside labels and vote for principles—God’s principles—that for many years have resulted in His blessing upon our nation.

“So, can a Christian vote for a Mormon?  My answer is yes.”

Thus could a 21st-century Mormon become the agent of the restorationist hopes of American evangelicals. How well the new restorationism would survive the 2012 election, however, was another question.

With the defeat of Mitt Romney by a demographic coalition that seemed like an ascendant majority, conservatives were seized with a sense that the country was moving inexorably away from its god-fearing, free-market past. Hopes disappointed, hundreds of thousands of citizens signed petitions to the White House asking that their states be allowed to go off on their own.

“We do not want to secede from the Union to destroy the republic,” conservative radio host Alex Jones declared November 15, “but to restore it.”

In America, restorationist dreams die hard.


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