Portman’s Shaker Problem

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One of Mitt Romney’s biggest challenges as presidential candidate may be to win public acceptance of a Protestant sect that is poorly understood by a majority of the public. Its practices, historically, have differed dramatically from those of mainline denominations, particularly during the 19th century, when its members engaged in odd sexual behavior and upended the conventional family structure. Even today, other Christians are apt to regard it as a friendly but decidedly alien cult.

I refer, of course, to Shakerism.

Growing evidence suggests that Romney’s Mormon faith will play little or no role in the coming election. A July poll by the Pew Research Center found that fully 60 percent of the public now knows that Romney is a Mormon, and that among those who know, more than 80 percent either feel comfortable with it or are indifferent to it. In a separate Pew poll, only 16 percent expressed an interest in learning more about Romney’s Mormonism. For Romney, the angel Moroni’s golden plates, Joseph Smith’s seer stone spectacles, and Sitting Bull’s purported Jewish ancestry won’t likely be campaign issues.

It’s quite another matter with the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. The Shakers, as we’ve come to know them, are a topic of lifelong fascination to Sen. Rob Portman, R.-OH, widely deemed Romney's likeliest vice-presidential pick.

Virtually extinct today, the Shakers are remembered for their exquisite craftsmanship--no religion ever demonstrated better taste in furniture--and for their lovely hymn, “Simple Gifts,” subsequently incorporated into Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” (and still later adapted into the theme music for “CBS Reports” documentaries like Harvest Of Shame.) The Shakers also had a genius, long before Frederick Taylor’s birth, for Taylorist-style ergonomic innovation: They are credited with inventing the clothespin and the circular saw. But as Portman noted in his 2004 book, Wisdom’s Paradise: The Forgotten Shakers of Union Village, “The religious beliefs that shaped their daily lives are often overlooked.” Those beliefs led the Shakers to compel all adherentsnot just their ministersto practice celibacy; to separate husbands from wives and children from parents; and to surrender all personal property to a village collective (“the joint interest”). Imagine Pat Robertson, Gus Hall, and Thomas Moser joining forces to form a religion and you get a rough picture of Shakerism.

Portman is not a Shaker himself. He was raised Presbyterian and became a Methodist when he married his wife, Jane. (In exchange, Jane, who’d worked on Capitol Hill for then-Rep. Tom Daschle, D.-S.D., became a Republican.) Portman got interested in the Shakers through his grandparents, who owned an historic inn called the Golden Lamb in Lebanon, Ohio, near a former Shaker settlement. They filled the inn with Shaker furniture and crafts. As a kid, Portman worked summers at the hotel. He became interested enough in the settlement’s history to write a high school paper about it, and several decades later, while representing Ohio’s 2nd district in the House, he wrote a whole book about it (with a freelance writer named Cheryl Bauer). Portman contributed his royalties to the Warren County Historical Society Museum, which includes a gallery filled with his grandparents’ Shaker collection. There Portman oversees, with his brother, a small trust fund his grandparents established to expand the museum’s Shaker holdings.

Portman’s Shaker fixation is the only thing that’s even mildly unusual about him. (Well, that and Portman’s baffling decision three decades ago to beeline straight from the University of Michigan law school to the Washington lobby firm of Patton, Boggs, where he registered as a foreign agent on behalf of Haiti’s Baby Doc and three Cuban cigar companies seeking to unblock assets. Standard Washington etiquette dictates that you sell out after you become a congressman, not before.) Yet the word “Shaker” is nowhere to be found in an exhaustive 347-page oppo file compiled by American Bridge, a Super PAC that aspires to be the Democrats’ answer to Karl Rove’s fearsome Crossroads GPS. That’s a grievous oversight.

Wisdom’s Paradise (the title refers to a spiritual name the Shakers gave the Lebanon settlement, more commonly known as Union Village) is a work of history, not of advocacy, but Portman’s (and Bauer’s) tone in describing what they call “one of America’s more successful experiments in Christian communal life” is weirdly boosterish. It’s simply wrong to call Shakerism a success. Compared to Mormonism, which was in many ways its opposite, the Shaker experiment failed at its most basic task, which was to perpetuate itself. The Mormons’ polygamy in their early days put them pretty drastically at odds with civil authorities, but while it lasted it was an excellent strategy to increase the church’s numbers, conversion being a lot more difficult to achieve than procreation. The Shakers’ insistence on celibacy, by contrast, made procreation impossible, and--combined with their systematic breakup of families--severely limited the ranks of future recruits.

Portman and Bauer seem to regard the Shakers’ celibacy as an intriguing challenge. I don’t know how else to read their observation that for the children and adults eager to depart Union Village, “the quest for perfection and the regimented routine were simply overwhelming.” A better way to put that might be: “the denial of basic human needs to ordinary people who’d never aspired to the life of a monk or a nun created more suffering than they were willing to endure.” Near the book’s end, Portman and Bauer wax rhapsodic about the Union Village settlement:

The people who created a community at Turtle Creek in 1805 were positive that everyone could have a relationship with God. Optimism is apparent in the theology that the Believers published in 1808 and in the thousands of pages of correspondence, journals, songs, poetry, and meditations written at Union Village over the years. Believers avowed that people could change, and that they could help society to improve…. Shaker precepts were twisted by the unscrupulous or self-aggrandizing over the years, but at the heart of the faith was a profound concern for the soul and life of each individual.

You have to wonder whether then-Rep. Portman had come to think of these Shaker ghosts as constituents liable to turn up at the polls on Election Day.

I don’t mean to be completely negative about the Shakers. Portman and Bauer rightly point out that they were pioneers when it came to religious tolerance; gender equality (the Shakers’ founder was a woman, and they believed that Christ might be resurrected as a woman); racial equality (they opposed slavery, and the Union Village settlement may have been a stop on the Underground Railroad); pacifism (Shakers refused to fight in wars); and conservation (they replanted the forests they harvested for lumber). The Shakers’ communal ownership of all property doesn’t receive much favorable discussion in Portman and Bauer’s bookthat would be a touchy topic even for a Democratic member of Congress--but one might even offer measured praise for the Shakers’ anti-materialism. All these virtues are prized far more by liberals than by conservatives, which is why, for instance, the PBS documentarian Ken Burns cast his reverent gaze in the Shakers’ direction back in 1984.

Portman is no liberal, but it’s possible to glimpse a few liberal cultural affinities in his biography. As a Dartmouth undergraduate, Portman apparently shunned fraternities and hung out with what’s been described as a crunchy-granola liberal crowd. Portman’s a passionate kayaker. Aren’t Republicans supposed to prefer tooling around in noisy motorboats? Back home in Ohio, Portman keeps chickens in his suburban backyard so his eggs will always be fresh. Conservatives are seldom locavores. And since when do Republicans favor simple, spare furniture design?

Maybe Portman’s potential value is as a practical complement to the nomineea yin to Romney’s yang. If Portman were a chair, he’d be a Windsor armchair--simple, carefully assembled and elegantly proportioned. If Romney were a chair, he’d be a squishy, expensively upholstered easy chair that bore the imprint of whoever last sat on it. Maybe the thinking is that a voter who won’t settle into one chair will opt for the other. Still, I’m not sure America is ready for a presidential ticket that’s blind to the Shaker menace.

Correction. This post originally misspelled Aaron Copland's surname.

TNR reporter-researcher Perry Stein provided research assistance for this article.

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