[EDITOR'S NOTE:] The following is a guest post by Arthur Farnsley, Art is Executive Officer of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and a fellow of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI). His books include Southern Baptist Politics; Rising Expectations: Urban Congregations, Welfare Reform and Civic Life; and Sacred Circles, Public Squares: The Multicentering of American Religion. He blogs regularly at the American Values Alliance.
Fred Thompson has entered the Republican presidential primary with a deep commitment to saying all the shibboleths. I can't decide whether that's mostly a good or a bad thing.
As a middle-aged professor and father of teenagers, I've abandoned the illusion that everyone--especially anyone younger than 30--always understands what I'm talking about. So let me say right up front that "shibboleths" are words capable of separating "us" from "them." "Shibboleth" comes from an old Hebrew word containing the "sh" sound the Gileadites could make but their enemies, the Ephraimites, could not. It was good for gate-keeping. The sentry could demand, "say Shibboleth". If you could, you were in. If not, well, you probably got a stern talking-to.
Thompson seems prepared to repeat all the code words, even to get them tattooed on his chest if necessary. For the right to bear arms. Against abortion. Supports the troops and the war. Less federal spending. Heck, less federalism, and more state control, in general. Right now, he's less concerned with being right or wrong than with getting past the gatekeepers. He wants everyone to say, without qualification, that Fred Thompson is a conservative, whatever else might be true of him.
Leave aside the question of whether you agree with his values (you probably don't) and just consider the context for a minute.
On the one hand, Thompson's rush to say all the shibboleths at once is kind of creepy. We all know he's an actor, but in this case it's like he's an actor playing the part of a social conservative. He is creating the role of Reagan's heir, trying to create the role of president.
It makes me queasy to picture him as a packaged candidate, crafted to meet a preconceived range of expectations. Plus, the man is no Ronald Reagan. Reagan spent years and years helping to build the conservative movement, including some electoral mis-fires. Reagan never really changed the message. I believe he believed those conservative principles down to the core. Thompson just does not have those deep roots.
On the other hand, that may not be such a bad thing. Reagan had pretty good luck paying lip-service to the religious right. He brought them into the Republican fold and shared some of their values, but he was not himself a religious crazy person. I have the sense Thompson isn't either.
Now, if you don't like his other "common sense" positions, especially his desire to weaken the federal government and leave more to the states, then it won't matter to you whether he is or isn't a true believer. But if you were hoping for a centrist Republican, then his potential to hold the Republican base together and then govern from the center, just by buying off the far right with a few code words, is intriguing.