I’m’a’gonna try not to talk altogether too much about the horse-race aspect of contemporary politics, as it’s a black sucking hole that consumes my brain, given too much encouragement.
But. A story in this morning’s New York Times deserves comment. John M. Broder, writing about John McCain’s early efforts to recruit supporters and advisers for his 2008 GOP presidential nomination bid, says the following:
He is reaching out to Christian conservatives, who helped sink his 2000 presidential bid, by enlisting the aid of figures like Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah and former Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, both of whom have strong evangelical followings.
There’s actually a lot going on there, in that one sentence. Bullet points!
- While it’s certainly true that “Christian conservatives” helped sink McCain’s 2000 bid for the GOP presidential nomination, it would be hard for them not to have done so. Most Americans, and nearly all Republicans, are Christians; most Republicans are conservatives (nearly all conservatives are Republican), and this is especially true of primary voters in the party. Ergo – nearly all Republicans can be fairly described as “Christian conservatives” – be they Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, or what have you. It’s just not particularly descriptive – or accurate, but more on that below.
- The use of “…strong evangelical followings” at the end of the same sentence indicates that Broder is using the term “evangelical” interchangably with “Christian conservative,” and that is, at best, highly misleading. “Evangelical” is a very particular stripe of American Christianity, and in the contemporary political context, almost always refers to a very particular kind of political activist. While almost all “evangelicals” are “Christian conservatives,” the reverse is most decidedly not true, because…
- Until recently, many evangelicals considered Catholics – Papists, as they called them derisively – to be rather heretical, what with that Pope-and-saint-worship, to say nothing of the Latin and the incense. And it’s still the case that many evangelicals consider Mormons to not really be Christians at all, what with the Jesus-coming-to-Americ-after-crucifixion and so on. This is important, because…
- John Huntsman, Jr. is Governor of Utah and, unsurprisingly given that office, a devout Mormon.
- Do you see where I’m going with this?
Okay. so while it’s certainly not impossible that Huntsman has a “strong evangelical following” (I’ll admit to not knowing all the ins and outs of Republican Christian conservative evangelical politics), it’s my strong, strong suspicion that he, in fact, has almost zero evangelical following – what with being Mormon and all – and having, instead, a strong Mormon following. And Mormons are quite often Christian (depending who you ask – being Jewish I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt) conservatives – but they’re just not evangelicals.
As Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post pointed out when Huntsman made his support for McCain public,
Huntsman’s support for McCain strikes deep into the political base of [Mormon] Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, another of the potential contenders for the Republican nomination.
Huntsman is a member of one of Utah’s most prominent Mormon families.
So, my criticism of Broder might seem nit-picky, but it’s not. These are distinctions with a difference, and change the meaning of things, just as a reporter covering Iraq would change the meaning ofthings by conflating and using interchangably “Muslim,” “Shi’a” and “Sunni.”
And, finally – I will return to this issue in greater detail later, but Broder’s mischaracterizations are exactly the sort of cultural ignorance and miscommunication that leads to charges of the NYT and others having “liberal bias.” That’s wrong, at least if you’re talking about a liberal political bias, but it’s dead right if you’re talking about the separation between the identities of cultural liberalism (present at the NYT, and NYC generally) and cultural conservatism (present, among other places, in Utah, Indiana, and elsewhere).