Important, but Too Political
Governor Mitt Romney’s speech shows the importance of having a national conversation on religion in public life but it also shows the dangers of having that discussion led by politicians during a political campaign. Political goals and rhetoric interfere with careful analysis and dialogue. While there is much to be admired in his presentation, his goal of winning over conservative evangelicals in the Iowa caucus led him to ignore important distinctions and to exclude nonbelievers as secularist bad guys.
The role of religion in public life is a complex topic requiring many distinctions and much nuance. It cannot be dealt with by shouting heads trying to score points in sound bites.
Governor Romney in his speech made many intelligent points with which I can easily agree.
• “A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.”
• “[N]o authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions.”
• “I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.”
• “There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.”
• “[L]iberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government.”
• “[O]ur founding fathers defined a revolutionary vision of liberty, grounded on self evident truths about the equality of all, and the inalienable rights with which each is endowed by his Creator.”
There are other statements to which I would respond, “Yes, but….”
• “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.’” The rule of law cannot be maintained simply by the fear of getting caught. We are not a police state. Religious moral codes support civilized behavior and help make civilized society possible. But while most Americans get their morality from their religion, it is also possible for nonbelievers to be moral citizens. Both believers and nonbelievers can be moral paragons and moral failures.
• “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom…. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.” As a sound bite this works well, but it requires some qualifications. By insisting that all people are children of God with inherent dignity and rights given to them by God, religion lays the foundation for limiting the power of government. And when believers have used governmental power to limit the freedom of others, they have not only harmed their neighbors but have corrupted their own religion. But Romney’s sound bites give the impression that only believers support freedom. Like believers, nonbelievers have both supported and suppressed the freedom of others.
• “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.” Yes, but we are also a nation that has room for nonbelievers and protects their right to be atheists. This is an area that requires dialogue, civil discussion and compromise. Any impression that government is favoring one religion over others or forcing religion down people’s throats must be avoided at all costs.
• “Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests.” This statement is vague and therefore dangerous. Clearly we do not want judges who abuse their positions either to advance a particular religion or to abuse religion in general. When, where and how religion can be expressed in the public square are not easy questions. The courts have grappled with prayer in public schools, aid to religious schools, nativity scenes on public property, bible and religious study in public schools, etc. I would not agree with all of their decisions, but they are mostly reasonable attempts to balance competing interests and goals with distinctions and nuance. For example, voluntary prayers composed by students are OK; prayers composed by school (government) employees are not.
• “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.” I believe this too, but it does not belong in a campaign speech. Like Governor Mike Huckabee's Iowa ads touting himself as a “Christian leader,” it implies that there is a “religion test” for political office. Both are pandering to those who would deny political office to people who differ with them on theology. Senator Joseph Lieberman cannot make this statement, but that is no reason to exclude him from office.
• “[W]hile differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions.” Perhaps we do on the general level of high principle, but many of the fights within and between churches today are over moral issues: abortion, gay sex, embryonic stem cell research, the Iraq war, immigration, AIDS prevention strategies, sex education, etc. The devil is in the details.
• “[N]o movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.” This is empirically true because there are so many religious people in the U.S.; they must be won over. But many movements of conscience have had nonbelievers as both leaders and followers.
• “The consequence of our common humanity is our responsibility to one another, to our fellow Americans foremost, but also to every child of God.” My problem is with the word “foremost.” While it is true that we have a special responsibility to those closest to us, God does not have a preferential option for Americans.
Catholics come to the discussion of religion in the public square with their own unique experience. We know that when our church abused it political power in Europe, it sinned against the freedom and rights of others. When the church got in bed with kings and elites, it sowed the seeds of its own corruption. European secularism is in many ways a response to abuses by the churches.
The Catholic experience in America is one of both freedom and discrimination. The separation of church and state allowed Catholicism to flourish in freedom, but Catholic immigrants also experienced discrimination from Protestants who felt that Catholics were not American enough. Protestant prayers in public schools drove Catholics to build their own school system. As a result, American Catholics are especially sensitive to the rights of religious minorities.
Within the Catholic community there are divisions over the role of religion in the public square. Since Catholics believe that not just Scripture but also reason is a source of morality, one group believes that political discourse in the public square should appeal to reason and the natural law not to scripture and church authority. References to scripture and church teaching are appropriate in Catholic churches and schools, but not on the campaign trail.
A few also fear that the generic God of political religion is a form of relativism.
Other Catholics see the public expression of religion in the public square as the positive fruits of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. A vocal number fear that secularists want to push religion totally out of public life. They are pushing back.
While we can thank Governor Romney for his contribution to the discussion of religion in the public square, what is needed is a calm public discussion of these issues away from the campaign trail. Demonizing opponents as Christian fascists or religion haters does not help American society. We need to listen to each other, walk in each others’ shoes and look for common ground. Rather than zeroing in on extreme positions, we need to search for a middle ground that respects all Americans.
Posted by: E favorite | December 12, 2007 8:19 AM
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Posted by: the Moderate | December 9, 2007 3:23 PM
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Posted by: Robert Blair Kaiser | December 8, 2007 1:09 PM
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