Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Garry Wills on Romney's Faith Speech

Garry Wills has an interesting commentary on Romney's Faith in America speech, that agrees with my own vew--that Romney took the opposite appraoch to that of JFK:

The situations are superficially the same—presidential candidates trying to remove an obstacle to their election arising from their church membership. But the obstacles are quite different. The objections some have to Mitt Romney's religion are twofold, theological and cultural. Those against John F. Kennedy when he gave his 1960 speech in Houston about his Catholicism were more solidly political. The theological problems with Romney come from evangelicals, who know that his Jesus is not a member of the divine Trinity.

. . .

Kennedy's problem was precisely political. . . And Kennedy's opponents were not interested in theological questions like transubstantiation. But there were solid grounds for political doubts about Catholics. The Vatican had not, in 1960, formally renounced its condemnation of American pluralism and democracy. In fact, one of Kennedy's advisers on his Houston speech, the Jesuit John Courtney Murray, had recently been silenced by the Vatican for defending religious pluralism.

. . .

Kennedy had to convince people that he would not let the Vatican push him around. Romney has let evangelicals know that he would let them push him around. He not only has given them a theological formula on Jesus which he hopes they will accept—he implicitly has attacked Kennedy's absolute separation of church and state using the evangelicals' own slogan: those who think (like Kennedy) that "religion is seen merely as a private affair" are, Romney said, "intent on establishing a new religion in America—the religion of secularism. They are wrong." That phrase has not been much noticed in public comments on Romney's speech, but it is a key statement for the evangelicals. Like George Bush's speechwriters, Romney has learned the code of Rightspeak—just as he learned Leftspeak when running for governor in Massachusetts.

That secularism is a religion is a position fiercely held by some on the right. They use it to say that separating church and state breaches the First Amendment, which forbids the establishment of a religion. In their topsy-turvy arguments, the First Amendment thus forbids the separation of church and state. Romney was speaking in that code. In his speech he made many other appeals to the religious right, as when he put "the breakdown of the family" in his list of most pressing national problems (another hit at Giuliani). He praised the use of religious symbols "in our public places." Though he did not specifically mention the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, he implied approval of their presence there. (He should be questioned on this matter.) The Bush administration and its lackeying Republican Congress would do anything for the religious right. When the right said "Jump!" on the Terri Schiavo case, the President and Congress said "How high?" Romney signals that he would act in the same way.

. . .

Has Romney been able to "do a Kennedy," as his speech was billed in the press? Far from it. Kennedy was on the side of the future. He defied the Vatican's ban on American-style democracy, which was rescinded in the Second Vatican Council, convened after his election. Romney—looking to the past, and specifically to the current Bush administration's position—kowtowed to the religious right. Saying that he opposes religious tests, he passed that one.

Read it all here.

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