Thursday, December 06, 2007

Mitt Romney is no JFK. His speech was better.

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.

3 comments:

Jim C. said...

Then there's , who offers a sounder opinion:

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.

Jim C. said...

Well, it worked in the preview...

My apologies for sloppy formatting. The column is from David Brooks.

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Bottom line for me: Doesn't it matter that Romney believes Native Americans were originally white people who God made nonwhite as a punishment? Shouldn't it matter that he belongs to an organization that was formally white supremacist until the '70s, when he was an adult? Wouldn't I want to consider a candidate's adult membership in an all-white country club?

Isn't it okay to consider these things when asking if he should be President?

Anonymous said...

It is ok to use what ever criteria you want in choosing a president. Is it useful to judge someone by a religion? I would say no. It is someone’s personal qualities and their actions that I think are most important in choosing a president.

I can't think of one religion that doesn't have (lets not mince words) crazy ideas. Including those of every candidate. Are all the other candidates to be held responsible for everything written in the Bible? Things like world created in 7 days or the entire population originating from a single man and woman that had two sons, talking snakes, or biblical writings on slavery. Is it right or even useful to hold any of that against Hillary or Obama? Is it fair or useful to discount any democrat because of the parties long history with the KKK including a current senator who was a member of the KKK? Personally I say no. I don’t think it is productive to judge anyone based on anything other than their own actions. I also cannot think of a weaker objection to anyone than guilty by association.

People that bash Mormonism in political conversations today are not, I expect, as worried or offended by Mormonism as they claim to be but simply use it as a club to bash Romney with or they would not apply their criticism so selectively. All the criticism about Mormonism could be heaped on Mormon democrat senate majority leader Harry Reid but (surprising no one) isn’t.