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Over on Catholic World News , a fellow who goes by the name of Uncle Di reflects on the way that clerics in recent decades have abandoned revealed truth and saving souls in favor of sundry causes of social justice. He recalls a 1942 essay by C.S. Lewis, “First and Second Things.” Lewis wrote: “To sacrifice the greater good for the less and then not to get the lesser good after all—that is the surprising folly . . . Every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made. Apparently the world is made that way. If Esau really got his pottage in return for his birthright, then Esau was a lucky exception. You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.”

First things. It would be a great name for a magazine.

In connection with the likely presidential bid of Mitt Romney, I am regularly asked whether I think evangelicals and Catholics would vote for a Mormon. Given his position on the moral and cultural issues, I am inclined to think the answer is in the affirmative. But of course it depends on who else is in the running and what issues they’re pushing.

Ross Douthat over at The American Scene is of a like mind. Speaking specifically of evangelicals, he says that he does not think “that a significant number of evangelicals will actually vote against Mitt Romney because of his Latter-Day Saint background—particularly if he’s up against a McCain in the primaries, or a Hillary Clinton in the general election.”

Douthat goes on to suggest that Romney’s problem will not be with committed evangelicals and Catholics:

Instead, I think that Romney’s Mormonism is much more likely to hurt him among the religiously-lukewarm, Republicans and swing voters alike—the people who are a little bit turned off by evangelicals already, and who will see in Romney everything they already dislike about the religious right (the zealous piety and white-bread überwholesomeness), with all the particular weirdnesses of Mormonism thrown in. It’s these people, I suspect, who will pick up the inevitable Time “Inside Mormonism” issue and get freaked out by the Latter-Day Saint cosmology and the peculiar Mormon version of North American history, or watch the inevitable 60 Minutes special on the history of Mormon racial discrimination, or go out and buy Jon Krakauer’s book about murder among polygamists. Which is to say that it’s the religious middle, not the religious right, that’s most likely to keep Romney out of the White House. (Secularists and religious left-wingers will freak out over Mormonism, too—so patriarchal! so pious! so pre-modern!—but they wouldn’t vote for any conservative Christian, so it doesn’t really matter.)

There is more than a little to that, I think. Differences among conservative Christians—allowing, for this argument, that Mormonism is Christian—are not so politically decisive as is the secularist animus against religion in the public square. Romney will likely have to “do a Houston”—meaning that he will follow JFK’s example of declaring his independence from the religion to which he belongs. Conservative Catholics now deplore Kennedy’s ploy, but that was not generally the case at the time. Then almost all Catholics were so eager to have a Catholic president that they overlooked Kennedy’s implicit agreement with Paul Blanshard and other anti-Catholic bigots that a serious Catholic in the White House posed a threat to the republic. Apart from the five million Mormons in the country, conservatives will probably cheer Romney’s distancing of himself from his church, and it will have everything to do with Mormonism being Mormonism. And, since Mormons would presumably be pleased to have a Mormon in the White House, many of them might follow the example of Catholics in 1960 and join in the cheering.

I don’t want to take unfair advantage of Kevin Philips, author of the recently published American Theocracy , but he does set himself up. Here’s an item I saved from the Washington Post of a couple of Sundays ago:

Since then, my appreciation of the intensity of religion in the United States has deepened. When religion was trod [sic] upon in the 1960s and thereafter by secular advocates determined to push Christianity out of the public square, the move unleashed an evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal counterreformation, with strong theocratic pressures becoming visible in the Republican national coalition and its leadership.

Besides providing critical support for invading Iraq—widely anathematized by preachers as a second Babylon—the Republican coalition has also seeded half a dozen controversies in the realm of science. These include Bible-based disbelief in Darwinian theories of evolution, dismissal of global warming, disagreement with geological explanations of fossil-fuel depletion, religious rejection of global population planning, derogation of women’s rights and opposition to stem cell research. This suggests that U.S. society and politics may again be heading for a defining controversy such as the Scopes trial of 1925. That embarrassment chastened fundamentalism for a generation, but the outcome of the eventual 21st century test is hardly assured.

I like that “disbelief” in Darwinian theories. “Ve haf ways of making you belief.” And I’m not sure how women’s rights and abortion are “in the realm of science.” But the really nice touch is the proposed restaging of the Scopes trial. Maybe the ACLU recruits a bold young school teacher, preferably in Tennessee, to propose Intelligent Design in a public school science class? The brilliant Michael Behe for the defense and a blustering Daniel Dennett, thumping a well-worn copy of The Origin of Species , for the prosecution? It has possibilities. And then there is the movie, Reaping Reaping the Whirlwind . As somebody said: The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

In addition to which :

Enough is enough. Trial lawyers, insurance companies, and activist organizations seem determined to put the Catholic Church out of business. First they come for the Catholics, and then they’ll come for anyone else who tries to maintain the freedom of religion outside the regulatory ambitions of the state. Read the troubling article by Archbishop Charles Chaput, “Suing the Church.” It’s among the lively articles in the May issue of First Things . Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?

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