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?