Faith, Religious Liberty, And Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney gave his much anticipated speech on faith and politics today:
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Republican Mitt Romney, confronting voters’ skepticism about his Mormon faith, declared Thursday that as president he would “serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause,” and said calls for him to explain and justify his religious beliefs go against the profound wishes of the nation’s founders.
At the same time, he decried those who would remove from public life “any acknowledgment of God,” and he said that “during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places.”
In a speech less than a month before the first nomination contests, Romney said he shares “moral convictions” with Americans of all faiths, though surveys suggest up to half of likely voters have qualms about electing the first Mormon president.
“I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it,” Romney said. “My faith is the faith of my fathers. I will be true to them and to my beliefs.” Nonetheless, he strove to clarify his personal line between church and state, recalling a similar speech delivered by John F. Kennedy in 1960 as Kennedy sought to become the first Catholic elected president.
“I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith, nor should he be rejected because of his faith,” Romney said at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, 90 miles from Kennedy’s speaking site in Houston.
“Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin,” Romney said.
He added: “If I am fortunate to become your president, 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.”
It will be interesting to see watch the reaction to this speech. On the whole, I thought that Romney did a pretty good job of answering the unjustified questions that some have asked about his faith — and this is coming from someone who opposes Romney’s candidacy. Whether that will be enough to change the minds of Evangelicals who continue to believe that Mormons are not Christians is another question.
As Andrew Sullivan notes, though, Romney’s plea for religious tolerance has one very big gapping hole:
A president of the United States does not just represent people of all faiths, he also represents those who have none. There is a lacuna in Romney’s vision of religious tolerance, and it is a deliberate lacuna. In order to appeal to evangelicals, he places himself on their side against the other: the secularists. But that is simply another form of the religious test. By insisting on faith – any faith – as the proper criterion for public office, Romney draws the line, oh-so-conveniently, so as to include Mormonism but exclude atheism and agnosticism. And so he side-steps the critical issue in the debates over religion in public life: what if there is no unifying faith for a nation? What if faith itself cannot unify a nation – and, in fact, can divide it more deeply than any other subject? That is our reality. An intelligent and wise conservative would try to find a path to a common discourse that does not rest on religious foundations.
Exactly. And this is the problem with the Republican Party today. Because it has tied it’s fortunes to the continued loyalty of a group of people to whom religion is not only important, but who believe that the lack of religion is an sign of moral defectiveness, Romney turns the idea of religious tolerance on its head — under the new definition it doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to believe whatever you want, including nothing but that you are entitled to believe in something.
Romney is right to argue that being a Mormon does not make him less of an American, and that his faith should not be an issue in this political campaign. In listening to his speech, though, its clear that he would not extend the same right to an athiest or an agnostic running for political office who believed in the American ideals of individual liberty and freedom of thought, but refused to believe in the civic religion that some Republicans seem to think exists in this country.
There’s one more problem with Romney’s argument and it lies in this quote from his speech today:
“There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us. If so, they are at odds with the nation’s founders, for they, when our nation faced its greatest peril, sought the blessings of the Creator. And further, they discovered the essential connection between the survival of a free land and the protection of religious freedom. In 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.’
“Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.”
You’re wrong there Governor. Freedom, in the sense of individual liberty, does not require religion and more than it requires one to believe in the existence of extraterrestrials. Individuals possess rights because of their nature as individuals, not because of doctrines established 1,000 years ago at a religious conference. And, more importantly, one can believe in individual liberty without believing in any god.
Before he continues down the path that he laid out in his speech, perhaps Romney should consider the words of America’s 3rd President:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.
It’s time to extend that wall and separate religion and politics.