What do we think of Mitt Romney's speech on faith and politics? People are comparing it to JFK's speech to the Houston Baptists in 1960, but it's very different. Kennedy spoke at a different time, but, for ours, Romney's is far more profound.
Kennedy went to great lengths to essentially say that his faith was a private thing, unlikely to affect anything that he did in public life. I am unconvinced that was or could be true, but it may have been in keeping with a time that had not yet learned what the "absolute separation" of religion and public life would mean.
Romney did not make the same claim. Faith, he said, is important. But what is important, in politics, is the way in which faith informs public life, i.e., how it impacts temporal policies. He acknowledges that it does. But Romney says that his Mormonism, in that regard, is within the best tradition of the Abrahamic faiths. It says things about the value of all human beings and the value of freedom that are ultimately consistent with what most of us believe.
What I find odd about the reaction to this is the extent to which some people, who could care less about contentions regarding a God in which they do not believe, want to say that Mormon views about the nature of the reality we cannot see (and which they think is not there) differs from those of mainstream Christianity. So we see atheist bloggers on the HuffPo getting into debates about the nature of Christ that we have not seen since Nicea. Don't you see, they claim, he is theologically unsound
You know what? I think he is. You know that else? It doesn't matter. People can believe all sorts of things about the nature of God, but if the distillation of that into how we live today is consistent, then we can, despite our theological differences, make common cause.
There has been some criticism about the lack of a nod to those who do not believe. During Backstory on WMCS last night, my colleague Dave Berkman tried to argue that Romney was saying that atheists ought to be excluded from the political process. (Ironically, Dave went on to argue that people of faith should keep it entirely out of politics, even, at my instigation, criticizing Martin Luther King for being too religious.) After the show,Dave sent me an e-mail mentioning similar criticism by Keith Olberman.
We are so used to the idea that political speeches have to throw a bone to each and every potentially offended party that his failure to do so draws attention. Romney did not say atheists should be excluded from anything. What he did do is claim that faith informs reason and that faith requires religious liberty. Implicit in that is the freedom not to believe.
Finally, some have said that he attacked Islam. Actually, that is a bone that he did throw. But he also pointed out the obvious. There is a problem in the world that is rooted in a theocratic interpretation of Islam. Calling intention to that is not an attack on all Muslims.