Saturday, December 8, 2007

Romney and the Republican Theocracy

I have been meaning to post something about the Romney speech on Faith in America, but wanted some time to reflect. Here are my thoughts:

First, I think it rather stunning that Mitt Romney had to give this speech in the first place. Some context here is important--the opposition to Romney because he is a Mormon does not come from concern that he will impose his faith on the country if elected President--indeed, much of the energy here come from certain elements of the Christian right who are largely aligned with the LDS on social policy. Rather, the objection to Romney's Mormon faith is purely theological--certain voters object to Romney because of the theological views (largely about the nature of Jesus Christ) of his Church.

And, do you have any doubt that Mike Huckabee is doing his very best to take advantage of the theological discomfort of many by noting that he is a true believer?

Here is a very honest admission of this fact by an influential evangelical leader:

I don’t think most evangelicals are afraid that a President Romney will impose his esoteric Mormon morality on the rest of us. We’re not really worried he’ll try to ban caffeine (though Huckabee might), or hand out tax breaks for special underwear.

We’re afraid that nominating a Mormon will legitimize a cult.

(Posted by David Kuo on his blog here--but the comments are not David's).

This is very, very disturbing--this is as close to a religious test as you will see.

Second, in light of this context, perhaps it is not surprising that Romney did not give a Kennedy-type defense of the Separation of Church and State--to the contrary, Romney largely gave a standard conservative critique of the principle of separation. (He managed to talk about the founding fathers without once mentioning Thomas Jefferson--quite telling).

Why? Because his audience were members of the religious right. In essence, Romney was saying, "Don't woory. I am a Mormon, but my theocratic agenda is the same as your theocratic agency." To this end, I think New York Times columnist David Brook's analysis is right on.

As Brooks explains:

Romney borrowed the conviction that faith is under assault in America — which is the unifying glue of social conservatism. He argued that the religious have a common enemy: the counter-religion of secularism.

He insisted that the faithful should stick stubbornly to their religions, as he himself sticks to the faith of his fathers. He insisted that God-talk should remain a vibrant force in the public square and that judges should be guided by the foundations of their faith. He lamented the faithlessness of Europe and linked the pro-life movement to abolition and civil rights, just as evangelicals do.

. . .

Before yesterday, most pundits thought Romney was making a mistake in giving the speech now. But in retrospect, it clearly was not a mistake. Romney didn’t say anything that the Baptist minister Mike Huckabee couldn’t say, and so this one address will not hold off the Huckabee surge in Iowa. But Romney underlined the values he shares with social conservatives, and will have eased their concerns.

Yet, as with me, it is the very success of this speech in calming the theological fears of the right that alarms Brroks:

When this country was founded, James Madison envisioned a noisy public square with different religious denominations arguing, competing and balancing each other’s passions. But now the landscape of religious life has changed. Now its most prominent feature is the supposed war between the faithful and the faithless. Mitt Romney didn’t start this war, but speeches like his both exploit and solidify this divide in people’s minds. The supposed war between the faithful and the faithless has exacted casualties.

The first casualty is the national community. Romney described a community yesterday. Observant Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Jews and Muslims are inside that community. The nonobservant are not. There was not even a perfunctory sentence showing respect for the nonreligious. I’m assuming that Romney left that out in order to generate howls of outrage in the liberal press.

The second casualty of the faith war is theology itself. In rallying the armies of faith against their supposed enemies, Romney waved away any theological distinctions among them with the brush of his hand. In this calculus, the faithful become a tribe, marked by ethnic pride, a shared sense of victimization and all the other markers of identity politics.

In Romney’s account, faith ends up as wishy-washy as the most New Age-y secularism. In arguing that the faithful are brothers in a common struggle, Romney insisted that all religions share an equal devotion to all good things. Really? Then why not choose the one with the prettiest buildings?

In order to build a voting majority of the faithful, Romney covered over different and difficult conceptions of the Almighty. When he spoke of God yesterday, he spoke of a bland, smiley-faced God who is the author of liberty and the founder of freedom. There was no hint of Lincoln’s God or Reinhold Niebuhr’s God or the religion most people know — the religion that imposes restraints upon on the passions, appetites and sinfulness of human beings. He wants God in the public square, but then insists that theological differences are anodyne and politically irrelevant.

Romney’s job yesterday was to unite social conservatives behind him. If he succeeded, he did it in two ways. He asked people to rally around the best traditions of America’s civic religion. He also asked people to submerge their religious convictions for the sake of solidarity in a culture war without end.

Read it all here.

And that leads me to my third and final observations. I think that the separation of church and state has served our nation very, very well. Perhaps the best evidence of this is to compare the experience of the American Muslim community to the Muslim community in Europe. And quite frankly, while I am a Christian, I have never seen any relationship between faith and qualities as a political leader. Some of the political leaders that I most admire are or were quiet nonbelievers. Some of the Presidents that I think deserve historical disgrace (like the present occupant of the White House) are sincere believers.

But, I think it equally worthy of note that the separation of church and state in the U.S. has also served our church(es) (and synagogues and mosques and ashrams) very, very well. In Europe, where there is an established church in most countries, religious faith is lifeless. In the U.S., faith is vibrant. (And, indeed, in those parts of Europe that are ending the established church monopoly, faith is coming back alive? Why? Because as Brooks observes, the intermingling of church and state leads to a bland, Government approved form of faith. That is certainly the history of prayer in schools. If that happens, what's the point?


The Exterminator said...


Fundamentalists, many of whom are Baptists, forget how vehemently their church forebears championed separation of church and state in the early days of our country.

Here are a few quotes from two notable Baptist preachers:

Isaac Backus (1724-1806):

[When] church and state are separate, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued.

Religious matters are to be separated from the jurisdiction of the state not because they are beneath the interests of the state, but, quite to the contrary, because they are too high and holy and thus are beyond the competence of the state.

John Leland (1754-1841)

The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. ... Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.

Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.

Modern-day Baptists have tried to spin these quotes to mean that the government, while not allowed to recognize a specific religion, ought to recognize religion as an innate value. But I think it's pretty clear to anyone who reads English that neither Backus nor Leland meant to say that. They meant to say the same thing that many of us say today: there should be absolutely no crossing of the line between church and state.

Chuck Blanchard said...


I dod a longer comment on your similar post on your website, but the bottom line is that you raise a very interesting point about history. Ironically, the audience for Romney and the J.F.K on this issue is essentially the same. Sadly, the rewuired message was 180 degrees different.

The Exterminator said...


I find it interesting that the "social conservatives" (read "religious ultra-right") are working hard to rewrite and/or ignore history. There are dozens of examples, but the irony you point out is an excellent one.

Bunker said...

Hi Chuck,

Many people point to the "no religious test" clause of the Constitution as if that meant voters couldn't make religion a test, even the only test. In fact, that clause only applies to the government. It has no application to voters at all. It is pointless to bring it up unless a candidate is being discriminated against by the government based on his/her religion.

Bunker Hill
Spearfish, SD

The Exterminator said...


You're right, of course, that voters are free to use any kind of arbitrary criteria they want. And candidates are equally free to talk on and on about their faith, or their dogs, or their haircuts, or their favorite foods.

However, candidates who spend an inordinate amount of time discussing their religion are clearly being untrue to the spirit of the Constitution. They're not breaking any laws, but they're not living up to the founders' vision, either.

Bunker said...


Romney declared to Faux News that "People in this country want a person of faith to lead them as their president." And in the speech we're discussing, he proclaimed "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom."

As I see it, Romney put his faith in play when he said that faith was an important qualification for a president. He's the one who said his faith is a qualification for office, so now we're not entitled to inquire what the content of that faith might be, how genuine it is and how it would effect his view of the issues?

I think not. If he wants to hold himself up as a better candidate for president because he is a man of faith, then I feel free to evaluate that claim, and vote for or against him based on that evaluation.

However, if the government refuses to allow him to run for president for any reason relating to his faith, then I will defend to the death his right to run. But a right to run is not the same thing as the right to my vote. All that, as I see it, is in keeping with the spirit of the American Constitution. What's not in the spirit of the Constitution is his statement that faith is essential to good government.


The Exterminator said...


I agree with everything you said, but I'd go a step further. Since Romney, himself, put his faith into play, I think all questions by the media about that faith are fair game. So I'm waiting for someone to ask Romney to explain Mormonism and tell which parts of it he believes and which he doesn't.

Justme said...

I think I don't agree with you and Mr. Brooks. In Peter Gomes book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus Christ, he talks about going, with some reservations, to a Presidential prayer breakfast for clergy. He said he was never more uncomfortable in his life as people play "who's the most powerful person I can stand next to." My concern is not as much about the government as about the church. Playing power games in politics has and always will corrupt the church.

Heather A. Hartel said...

I have looked into Christian movements to "re-convert" Mormons back to Christianity. I have interviewed Baptists who hold up signs at the yearly Hill Cumorah performance near Palmyra, NY to tell people that Mormonism is not Christianity, and I have spoken with a group of non-denominational Christians who have an outreach office in Nauvoo, IL where the LDS church recently rebuilt one of the first Mormon temples. They seek to evangelize Mormons back into Christianity by pointing out errors in LDS theology. I am so glad you mentioned that many Christians take issue with the Mormon interpretation of Jesus Christ.

Mormonism has spent years trying to legitimize itself as an American and Christian-type religion--ever since they banned plural marriage and did some good PR in the late 1800s to help gain statehood for Utah. Go to any Mormon visitors center and you will surely be shown a film that through its imagery and tone links patriotism with Mormonism. The fact the Romney has gotten as far as he has is testament to how mainstreamed Mormonism has become with their effective PR.

Despite the necessity of the separation of church and state, and our assumptions that this will be taken seriously by any elected official, I suspect that if more Christians had a better picture of Mormon theology, they might not be as supportive of Romney as they are.

USpace said...

Mormon ain't Islam. Huckabee seems to want fundamentalism. It could never happen, even if Huckabilly really wanted to do it. I don't think he does, he just wants the votes from those who do. He's not stupid enough to want it or try to do it, he's just stupid enough to say it.

Huckleberry is too conservative on religion and too liberal on criminals and the economy and immigration.

Huckabye? Huckabee wants to have adulterers, homosexuals and rape victims stoned to death. He also wants to make alcohol and music videos illegal, and make women 2nd class citizens and to take all girls out of school.

Oops, my bad, that's another 'religion'.

Hey, anybody but the PIAPS!

if you’re MAD
punish your country
VOTE for Hillary