Excommunication has been much in the news lately, and especially in Mormon circles. It’s always a little surprising for me when issues relating to Mormonism receive national attention. The John and Kate story has recently been a big story in the Huffington Post, the New York Times, Good Morning America. I mean, when Mitt Romney was running for President, his religious beliefs were, quite properly, part of the American political conversation. I get that. But the letters received by John Dehlin and Kate Kelly? Why is that a national story? In part, I’m sure, it’s because Mormons are weird.
When I say that we’re weird, I don’t mean because we seem to like green jello, or because we wear strange underwear. It’s not because we oppose gay marriage, or don’t drink coffee. It’s because we believe in other books of scripture than the Bible, because there are men we refer to as ‘prophets,’ because we claim the power of revelation, because we have these big pretty buildings we call ‘temples,’ because we send out thousands of young missionaries (kids, who wear suits and go around preaching). We’re weird, I think, in part because we believe in a set of quite specific doctrines, many of them way outside the Christian mainstream. And because we excommunicate.
That has to seem oddly medieval to people outside our faith, doesn’t it? I’ve been researching a play set in the 11th century, about a clash between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope; excommunication was central to that conflict, because that particular Emperor wanted to ordain bishops, and that Pope considered ordination an exclusively papal responsibility. Because the Pope excommunicated the Emperor. And then they nearly fought a war over it. Thousands of young men nearly died, because of that disagreement over ecclesiastical prerogatives. And Catholics historically excommunicated lots of people who taught heterodox doctrines.
Boy, not any more. I know lots of Catholics who disagree with the Church on really fundamental questions, like abortion, birth control, celibacy. Nobody gets excommunicated for it.
I also read a book recently about the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated as a Jew at the age of 23 (and who was later honored by the Catholic Church when they put his books on the Index of Forbidden Books). John Dehlin recently talked about Jewish people, friends of his, who may not even believe that God exists, but are still regarded as respectable and faithful Jews by their rabbis.
Mostly, excommunication doesn’t happen much anymore. But this week, it occurred to me that it sort of does happen politically. It’s probably because the big political news of the week was the primary defeat of Eric Cantor in Virginia. But isn’t there a sense in which Cantor could be said to have been excommunicated? Because of doubts within his ‘church’ over the authenticity and orthodoxy of his beliefs?
Okay, in case you were vacationing on Mars last week, Eric Cantor was the House Majority Leader, the third highest ranking Republican in Washington, after the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader. He represents the Virginia Seventh (the “fightin’ Seventh,” as Stephen Colbert would put it). He lost in the Republican primary to a Tea Party-supported economics professor named Dave Brat. Cantor outspent Brat by a massive amount. Polls showed him winning by a wide margin. But he lost, and lost badly. It was a huge upset.
Brat was essentially a one-issue candidate, hammering Cantor for supporting immigration reform, which Brat characterized as ‘amnesty.’ So this election was seen nationally as kind of a referendum on immigration reform, and a confirmation of a national narrative that sees the Tea Party as hopelessly nativist and borderline racist. In fact, as the invaluable Rachel Maddow pointed out this week, in-depth polling of the Virginia Seventh District shows that Virginia voters didn’t care much about immigration. It wasn’t an important issue to them. Brat kept hammering it, and he did win, but Maddow argued that Brat would have won just as easily if he’d picked another issue to hammer Cantor over. The fact was, Cantor’s unfavorable ratings were very very high. He wasn’t popular in his district. He seemed much more focused on his Washington career (and his probable advancement to House Speaker), than on the issues that mattered to his district. And on conservative, Tea Party issues, he seemed . . . insincere.
In post-election interviews, Cantor kept saying something that seemed weird to me. He said that he would continue ‘fighting for the conservative cause.’ If he had been a Democrat, I think he wouldn’t have said ‘I will keep fighting for the liberal cause.’ He would probably say something like ‘fighting for the issues that matter to the American people,’ or ‘fighting for the issues that matter to the people of Virginia,’ or ‘fighting for what I believe in.’ Liberalism isn’t an ideology. And conservatism is one.
Look, it’s a truism that all politicians pay lip service to issues, but the only issue they really care about is their own election/re-election. In fact, I do think some folks get into politics because they care about certain issues. I love the TV show Veep, and Selina Meyer, the politician played so wonderfully by Julia Louis-Dreyfus is entirely career focused–she doesn’t care about anything, or believe in anything, and her cynicism (and the utter cynicism of all the characters) is key to the comedy. It’s satire. Satire’s always exaggerates for comedic effect–that’s how it works. And there may well be politicians that cynical, but mostly they’re not, I think. They may compromise, but they still believe.
But Tea Party voters today really do seem to get angry when politicians don’t believe in the issues they believe in as fervently as they believe in them. Eric Cantor would sometimes explain his support for immigration reform in political terms–‘we’re up against some hard demographic truths, we need to reach out to Hispanic voters, who will never vote for us if they perceive us as, you know, racist, so we need this, we need immigration reform.’ There’s some terrific footage of Cantor trying a variant of that argument in a town meeting, and getting roundly booed. He didn’t believe in what Tea Party Republicans believe. He was an opportunist, a political calculator. He wasn’t ideologically pure. And so he got fired. Excommunicated.
The Democratic equivalent has to be Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign in 2008. She had voted for the war in Iraq. To many liberals, the war in Iraq was anathema. Barack Obama had not supported the war. That made him seem more authentically Democratic, more genuinely liberal. And so he won the nomination, and eventually the Presidency. So yeah, liberals can do it too. But the war in Iraq really was important. It really was defining.
And for the Tea Party, the list of ‘really important, ideologically defining’ issues is very long. You have to, absolutely have to oppose Obamacare. You have to be against immigration reform. You have to oppose the minimum wage increase. Gay marriage and abortion are, as always, crucial. Any tax increases, at all, ever, for anyone, ever, is political suicide. Cutting spending is embraced with an evangelical fervor.
Dave Brat is an ideological extremist, and will, if elected this fall, make Congress crazier. He’s an ‘economics professor,’ but exists on the Ayn Randian lunatic fringe of his discipline. But I also get why he won. He seemed genuinely to care about the issues his constituents cared about. He comes across as sincere. And Eric Cantor does not seem similarly authentic.
So they excommunicated him, for ideological impurity. What a weird world we live in these days. In a week where the Mormon part of it got weird too.