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.

  • Jack

    Would we elect a president who practiced Scientology? Christians, Muslims, and Jews have thousands of years of history, so I can grasp their beliefs. How can I vote for someone who honestly believes in the Church of Latter Day Saints? I can’t. And I am not alone. As a student at a prestigious American University, you would be surprised at how many will openly admit their atheism, and are willing to engage in a knowledgeable conversation about religion. We respect religion’s vital role in global politics but are increasingly frustrated by the fundamentalist Christians who are eager to repress the nation with their antiquated moral standards. Evolution exists, I have an iPod, stem cell research is necessary, and nanotechnology is promising.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    I don’t think it’s possible to separate religion and politics, for the exact reason that Jack mentions above. If a Scientologist runs for public office, am I as a voter supposed to remove that from my consciousness when I consider his qualifications?

    Religion should not be a requirement by the federal or state governments as a qualification for office, but such consideration does not apply to the voters. I can choose not to vote for Hillary because she’s a socialist, just like I can choose not to vote for Huckabee because his religious beliefs are too far “out there” and I think they’ll affect his presidency in ways I don’t support.

    I refuse, as a voter, not to consider anything I believe may be relevant to a person’s qualifications to govern. If I believe that a person will allow his kooky religious beliefs to trump what I believe to be correct policy, you can bet I’m going to argue against his election, based upon his religious beliefs. Trying to avoid the subject is only asking for trouble.

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis

    Brad,

    The kind of separation of religion and politics that I’m talking about is an end to the civic piety that politicians are seemingly required to observe in today’s society. It’s contary to the spirit of the Constitution, if not the very word.

    It can be things like the stupid question at last week’s YouTube debate from the guy who wanted to know if the candidates believed “every word” of the Bible. Can you imagine the reaction from the Republican rank and file if someone had actually had the guts to answer “no” to a question like that ? Or, it can be inane stuff like the President taking his oath of office with his hand on a Bible and adding the words “so help me God” to the end of the oath — neither of which are required by the Constitution.

    Why did Mitt Romney even need to make this speech ? Quite frankly, its because a bunch of narrow-minded evangelicals don’t think that Mormons are “true Christians”, whatever that means — I’m Catholic and I’m guessing they probably think the same thing about me.

    I agree that voters can make decisions about a candidate based on whatever they choose, but, I think the way that religion gets dragged into politics like this is poisoness.

  • TanGeng

    Doug,

    I think a good moral compass is essential for good governance. Corrupt and self-serving elected officials are common, but voters want to avoid giving those people power. For some people, a good test for morality is religious piety and religious beliefs. If the voters are considering religion in that framework, the religious test is merely part of a larger test of morality and understandable.

    Personally, I find the religious test for morality incompletely and usually draws in more factors than the morality of the person in consideration. But if you were to give me someone that subscribed to Confucianism, I’d vote for the politician immediately. But as many will point out, Confucianism isn’t really a religion, but a philosophy of morality and ethics for rulers of the state.

  • tp

    Andrew Sullivan’s comments are based on an error that the quote of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are in contradiction. They are not.

    Both freedom and religion are needed to support each other as John Adams claims. In a democracy I must rely on my neighbor to teach their children values and principles of integrity, sacrifice and service. Most often it is through religion that these principles are taught. (That does not mean an agnostic or atheist can’t teach these principles). What it does mean as a democracy our people must be well educated, selfless, honest and principled. If our children do not learn these values we will begin to have generations of selfishness, ignorance, and corruption. If these behaviors become the majority of a generation the wise choices for the nation will become subject to a “what’s in it for me” perspective. Thomas Jefferson acknowledged this by saying, “That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves.”

    The separation of church and state are required for balance of power. Our founder’s did not want the church to take over the government or government to control people’s beliefs, “Again Thomas Jefferson said, “In every country and every age, the priest had been hostile to Liberty.”

    However in an attempt to define this line of power many feel they have lost the right to fully practice their religion.

    I personally believe we do not teach tolerance of religion by removing all reference of any religion from our public view. If we want more tolerance and respect we must allow our children to learn about each other’s religion.

    As our Third President of the United States said, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis

    TanGeng,

    Perhaps your are right that religion is being used as a shorthand for morality by voters, but then that gets to the old conservative cannard that morality requires religion, which is simply untrue.

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis

    tp,

    All of what you say may be true, but it is not the concern of government to either teach those values or define what they are.

  • http://www.federalrepublic.net Adam Rodriguez

    Unfortunately, many on the right would toss away all this religious tolerance stuff if one of the main contenders in the Presidential race was a Muslim.

    Yet another time when people wouldn’t be consistent with what they believe.

  • TanGeng

    Oh, no. They’re consistent, very consistent. There’s no religious tolerance if you disagree with their core beliefs.

    Mitt Romney however is anything but consistent. You could say that he’s very hypocritical on religious. He’s said nobody in is cabinet should be a Muslim since he’s going to hire his staff based on a quota system.