Joanna Brooks on Mitt Romney, business, and religion

Last week, Joanna Brooks posted to Religion Dispatches a somewhat puzzling piece—puzzling because I sense that, under the guise of posing questions, she was in fact trying to make a point that for some (puzzling) reason she didn’t want to make directly.

In response to a recent Washington Post column about Mitt Romney’s past conduct in the world of business, Brooks wondered why news stories about Romney-the-Mormon seem divorced from discussions of Romney-the-business-executive. “I’m waiting for the story,” she said, that

gets [to] the deeper and more persistent question of religion and moral bearings:

How does the most religiously devout candidate in recent memory reconcile a life of religious commitment with a values-neutral approach to work, livelihood, and the marketplace?

What puzzles me about that statement is that Romney’s “approach to work, livelihood, and the marketplace” is patently not “values-neutral,” as Brooks is surely astute enough to know. Evidently, however, the values that drive Romney’s business practices are not the values that count for Brooks, or for the persona she’s adopting.

Let me attempt to translate Brooks’s question into the point I think she intended to make:

I wish some reporter would write a story that shows how Romney’s business practices clash with LDS values about economic justice and caring for others.

Let me speculate, further, that Brooks would like to see such a story because it would present a more progressive face for Mormonism than news readers have been getting in stories that spotlight Mormon racism or homophobia or that paint Mormons as a conservative army. Mormonism would look like a good thing for once—“good” defined by politically progressive criteria.

Brooks then asks a second question:

Why does religion play an outsized role in the politics of gay marriage and contraception but apparently has no say when it comes to big-ticket items like national spending and economic policy?

The implicit point of this question, of course, is that religion ought to “have a say” on economic issues. By “having a say,” I surmise Brooks means that she wants to see more public discourse that relates those issues to religious values.

More specifically, I suspect that behind this question is a complaint I’ve encountered elsewhere on the religious left: if we’re going to talk about bringing “religious values” back into government, the way the religious right’s always going on about, then let’s talk about social and economic justice. (I’m probably on record somewhere online making my own version of that complaint.)

Even though Brooks’s question is rhetorical, let me treat me it as if it were straightforward and offer a Weberian answer to the “why.” The reason gay marriage and contraception are linked to religion in political discourse, but economic policy issues aren’t (more to Brooks’s point: the reason that reporters talk about Mormonism in connection to Romney’s stand on gay marriage but not in relation to his business practices), is that the process of secularization is farther advanced in the sphere of business and economics than in the sphere of sexual politics.

In other words, we live in a society where it has come to be taken for granted that the rationales driving business or economic decision-making will customarily be secular, not religious. Individuals in the world of business may be guided by religious values; and religious organizations, on both the right and the left, make statements about business and economic issues. But those values and statements are generally located in the “private” realm. One doesn’t normally expect to hear them discussed in boardrooms or legislatures. There aren’t enough people out there who feel that it’s necessary to invoke religious warrants in business and economics. (For someone who laments this state of affairs, read Robert Wuthnow’s God and Mammon in America.)

The situation is different in public discourse around sexual politics: in that sphere, religious warrants do still play a more prominent role. Why? Primarily, I propose, because while religious conservatives certainly invoke secular—e.g., scientific—warrants for their positions, they’re on the defensive in that regard. Secular warrants seem to have been more effectively harnessed by liberals when it comes to sexual controversies. Conservatives therefore need to rely on the authority of religion to rally their supporters and press their case.

At the same time, liberals have found it useful to link religion to conservative stances on sexual issues for at least two reasons: (1) Liberals of a rationalist bent can paint the opposition as religious zealots who are guided by old dogmas rather than by reason. (2) Religious liberals can challenge conservatives’ attempts to invoke religious authority by arguing that the conservatives aren’t really living up to their religion—i.e., its call to practice love, or justice, or inclusion, etc.

The second strategy is what Brooks is hinting she’d like to see some journalist adopt in treating Romney’s business practices. I remain puzzled why she doesn’t take a stab at it herself.

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