Today Mitt Romney gave his much-anticipated speech on religion. The speech was breathlessly anticipated as an echo of JFK's speech about his Catholicism and an answer to those who are wary of Romney because he is a Mormon. The text of the speech is here.
I'm not wary of Romney because he's a Mormon. I'm wary of him because he's one more candidate who seems to use religion in a glad-handing, baby-kissing sort of way, to be seen by men. He uses it in the same spirit that candidates eat hoagies or cheesesteaks or whatever the local regular-guy food is, the way they go hunting or ride around in tanks, the way they drop the name of the local sports team into their speeches. These candidates may have a sincere personal faith, but their public faith seems like a shopworn and banal campaign button, to be pinned on and polished whenever it might help position them in the electorate's expectations. That, in my opinion, cheapens both faith and (to the extent this is possible) politics.
Romney's speech did not strike me as particularly thoughtful or ground-breaking. It serves to advance the current Religious Right's conventional wisdom that this is a "Christian nation" in the sense that Christianity is an essential element of what defines who we are and what we should do.
There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us. If so, they are at odds with the nation's founders, for they, when our nation faced its greatest peril, sought the blessings of the Creator. And further, they discovered the essential connection between the survival of a free land and the protection of religious freedom. In John Adams’ words: 'We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion… Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people."
Note that religion is equated with morality in the citation of Adams, if not by Adams himself. Take that, history of philosophy! Also note the use of the "some people say" argument, usually employed to erect a strawman but here used somewhat confusingly. I don't know what he means when he says that religion should be "considered seriously" in the context of the weighty threats that face us. I'm not sure we're meant to know precisely what it means — it's the sort of soothing generality about religion that is typically employed by candidates.
Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.
Again, I'm not sure what he really means. The framers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution suggested that rights derive from God, not from government. Or at least that's what they said — there's no reason to believe that they employed religion any more sincerely than our generation of politicians. But is Romney seriously saying that we cannot protect freedoms without a consensus about the spiritual? And he's not suggesting that as a method of constitutional interpretation, is he? Because it seems to me that people who emphasize that rights derive from God generally want to appoint judges who say that rights don't exist unless they are explicitly listed in the Constitution.
Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president. Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.
Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.
Here Romney invokes Kennedy and, like Kennedy, suggests that he will not answer to his Church's authority. Here's the thing, though — I'm not sure that he can have it both ways. Kennedy's speech was very different that Romney's, in that Kennedy believed that religion should occupy a private role in a candidate's personal life, not a public role in his life as a leader:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote–where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference–and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish–where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source–where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials–and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of Presidency in which I believe–a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.
Though the subject matter is nominally the same, the difference in tone and content is striking. JFK's invocation of both the separation of church and state (a hobgoblin of the Religious Right) and the privacy of faith was consistent with his plea for people to judge him based on his acts. But I'm not sure that Romney's celebration of the role of religion in government and American civic life is consistent with his plea. If, as he says, religion is inseparable from freedom and morality, if is essential to our governance, then is the door not open to an examination of various articles of faith? Romney's terrible swift sword is double-edged for him, I think. As I've said before here, I don't support the notion that Romney should be excluded on the basis of his faith. But his view of the role of religion seems to invite that exclusion. I believe this is demonstrated in this portion of his speech:
There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.
If it is merely faith in God that is central to American civic life, not faith in any particular sect's vision of God, then why should he address this question? It implies that he qualifies for office because he believes Jesus is our Savior … as if this is some sort of minimum litmus test. Take that, Jews and Muslims, not to mention agnostics! He later gives them a nod, but it rings hollow in light of his decision to address the divinity of Christ as if it were a prerequisite of office.
Later, Romney offers a weak echo of JFK's separation of church and state, qualified heavily with current doctrine about how terrible unnamed forces are trying to drive God from the public square:
We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.
The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.
We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.'
Romney may even be right as a matter of interpretation of the Establishment Clause. But once again his arguments seem to fight with themselves. Are these mere trappings, or sincere expressions of faith? If they are sincere expressions of faith, why does our government have a role in advancing them? What sort of "ceremony" is appropriate? Whose ceremony?
Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage. Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: does he share these American values: the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty?
They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common. They are the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united.
We believe that every single human being is a child of God – we are all part of the human family. The conviction of the inherent and inalienable worth of every life is still the most revolutionary political proposition ever advanced. John Adams put it that we are 'thrown into the world all equal and alike.'
The consequence of our common humanity is our responsibility to one another, to our fellow Americans foremost, but also to every child of God. It is an obligation which is fulfilled by Americans every day, here and across the globe, without regard to creed or race or nationality.
Once again, Romney implies that both rights and obligations derive from God, not from law. What does this imply about those who are not religious? Do they lack "common humanity" and responsibility? I think atheists and agnostics (as well as members of faiths that are not mainstream) will find cold comfort in Romney's words extolling religious freedom in America. The rest of his words suggest that such people cannot truly share American values and the American experience.
Ironically, it is the religious base of the Republican party — the base that Romney needs to sway to prevail in the general election — that will both be most receptive to his views on the role of religion in American life and the most suspicious of him based on his Mormon faith. As much as I think that Romney should not be rejected based on personal faith, that is a result not without some justice.
Update: Andrew Sullivan has some thoughts and a roundup of others. Today's entries on The Corner are interesting, particularly the bickering about whether the speech should have been inclusive of non-believers.
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