We Don’t Doubt, We Don’t Take Direction: Whiteness, Religion, and the 2012 US Election

By Donovan Schaefer

The 2012 election campaign made an open contest of religion much less than anyone would have predicted in 2008.  Aside from the occasional outburst during the Republican primaries, Governor Mitt Romney’s Mormonism was nearly a non-issue, even to the extent that when Billy and Franklin Graham endorsed the Republican candidate, the website of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was doctored to remove the Church of Latter Day Saints from the list of known “cults.”

But the shifting religious textures of 21st century America could be felt beneath every corner of the election.  The ongoing recoding of Obama’s racial difference as religious otherness felt muted: the Republican party seemed to spend more time working on Obama’s race than on his putative un-American faith.  Is this because Gov. Romney himself is a member of a religious minority–and one that has, born out of its own history of religious persecution, put itself on the line as a defender of religious freedom–and didn’t want to call attention to his own outsider status?

(Gov. Romney also, it seems, had to downplay the standard conservative slogan “defend traditional marriage;” his own family tree may have been too horizontal a few generations back to play that card with impunity.)

The most telling indicator of the election, however, was the seemingly incidental datum that there were, for the first time in American history, no white Protestants represented on either party’s presidential ticket.  This new state of affairs reflects the religious and racial diversification of the country, the diffusion of the former white Protestant majority’s political center of gravity across a broader demographic diaspora.

The loss of not only the presidential race, but high-profile ballot initiatives on same-sex marriage in 4 states prompted R. Albert Mohler, Jr., of the Southern Baptist Theological seminary, to explain to the New York Times that “the entire moral landscape has changed… An increasingly secularized America understands our positions, and has rejected them.”  But the notion that the array of non-Christian forces can be corralled under the heading of “secularism” is a self-serving fiction.  It is the multiplication of religious constituencies and, more importantly, the rarefaction of religious identity as a determining factor in political demographics that has transformed the political theater.  The 2012 elections saw the first openly gay and Buddhist senators and the first Hindu member of congress.  The presumptive white Protestant homogeneity/hegemony has been roiled by population shifts–a demographic variegation–not a unidirectional slide into unbelief.

The collapse of presumptive homogeneity frames the sloppy arrogance of the 2012 Republican campaign.  Senatorial candidates Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin athletically tossed their party’s hopes for a majority in the senate into the cold ocean with incautious statements linking God and rape.  These are the epistemological backwaters of a class–white Christian men–that has never been compelled to confront viable challenges to its intellectual and cultural authority in its own castle.  With this election, however, the modern Republican party has faced its Lucretia moment: it has been forced to address the destructive parochialism that comes with decades of unchecked dominance and cultivate a new set of practices for accommodating difference–whether by deceit or detente.  The shape of the cultural musculature of the United States is changing, and the critical mass of the white patriarchal Protestant coalition is no longer sufficient to win presidential elections on its own, and never will be again.

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