Romney’s Testament

December 7, 2007 | By | 9 Replies More

Mitt Romney has made it clear that he intends to serve the law first, his religion second. That he feels he ought not to have to justify his religious beliefs in order to run for president of the United States. The parallels to John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech are dripping with relevance and poignancy.

As far as it goes, I agree with him. This question ought to be utterly irrelevant. What matters are policy positions, the ability to function under stress, a certain eloquence, all the quite Earth-bound concerns that, regardless of our spiritual dispositions, really do bind us all.

But after Reagan, religion has become more and more a policy issue. Little by little, until our current president, organized religions have become part and parcel of a president’s campaign stance and now inextricably linked to policy. Bush has breeched the assumed wall of separation. Hard to really blame him for it, he told us he would, and he made good on his promises in that respect. Reagan toyed with the religious right in order to gather votes, but for all the smoke and thunder he never really did anything toward giving them something concrete (other than recognition, which was bad enough). Once the alliance was made, though, it became harder and harder for a presidential candidate to sidestep questions of faith. Even the Democrats have to deal with the legacy of the what I call the Reagan Compact.

Up till Reagan, most fundamentalist groups eschewed politics. Most didn’t even vote. They saw it as pointless. Why be concerned about This World when it will soon pass away in the Second Coming? Why be bothered by petty politics when it is all mere vanity and could distract from the important work of praying to a god that can grant reward and punishment based on a scale that has nothing to do with nuclear disarmament, or farm bills, or social security, or…

But wait. The world must be in a particular condition before Jesus will return. It seems to be lurching in that direction (rough beast-wise) but it’s taking so damn long! Maybe politics can be used to move us along that path faster.

In fact, it becomes clear that all this effort to create a Palestinian state and get the Middle East settled peacefully and willing to accommodate Israel is, in fact, the precise opposite of what Must Be for the stage to be set for the Rapture. These politicians must be stopped!

There were many groups who bought this argument and brought it to the table when they supported Dubya, and even if he publicly thought it was stupid and claimed not to know anything about it, a lot of his campaign supporters knew all about it and pushed it into the debate that went on inside the White House. Not overtly–these folks are not so guileless–but couched in the language of policy decisions. Hence we’re in Iraq in a bad way. Hence we irritated a lot of Palestinians by rejecting the election of Hamas (making ourselves look once again like anti-democrats). Hence we never call Israel to task for boneheaded bad policies which exacerbate the rifts between them and, well, everyone else in the Middle East.

Belatedly, Bush seems to have realized that some of his earlier policy decisions have led to worse problems, not solutions.

But, aside from corporate interests, the people funneling advice and policy papers into his administration have been those interested in certain religious outcomes.

The questions aimed at Romney come from a growing discomfort on the part of the rest of us about overtly religious mindsets inhabiting the Oval Office. Which means that while the sentiment Romney espouses is perfectly correct (religion shouldn’t matter), he is expressing them at a time when his predecessors have made it matter.

There is a huge difference between what Kennedy said and what Romney is saying. Kennedy wanted to move religion off the table. Religion, he suggested, has no place in policy. That regardless of what one may wish the world to be like as dictated by a particular religious viewpoint, the world is what it is and needs to be dealt with based on the commonality of that experience–which is secular. Kennedy didn’t use that term, to be sure, but that’s what he meant. And he vowed to be a secular president. Romney isn’t saying that at all. He’s promising to be a religious president—just not of any particular stripe. In other words, he believes that religion has a place in politics and he intends bringing that viewpoint to the office.

Two things: the first is, everyone brings who they are to that office. I do not believe we ever elected an atheist president. Hard to know, really, but it’s a safe bet. In that sense, how can anyone not bring something so centrally important to their lives into the job they hold? It really is like trying to ban prayer in schools—you really can’t because you can never tell when someone is praying, unless they make a big show of it.

The other is, one’s religion obligates one to a certain code of conduct and colors the way they see the world. This is nothing revolutionary–any philosophy does that, including all the varieties of secular thinking. It only becomes a problem when a decision must be made based on information that runs counter to a religiously-held belief. (Evolution, stem cell research, peace in the Middle East, welfare…)

How serious of an issue is this? Well, let’s see. Kennedy does not seem to have made any decisions that could be defined as Catholic (with the possible exception of his support for the Diem regime in South Vietnam). Nixon was a Quaker, but you’d never have been able to tell from the way he conducted his presidency. Jimmy Carter was a self-professed Born Again Christian, but aside from an admission of secret lust and seeing a UFO there seemed to be no overtly fundamentalist decisions he made. Reagan…not sure what he was, but his use of the term Evil Empire had apocalyptic overtones, and his antipathy toward homosexuals vis-a-vis AIDS research and the funding of related CDC programs strongly suggest a religious take on the world. Bush the First is an unfortunate case. He was wedded to the Religious Right by virtue of Reagan’s election and I think he walked a fine line between lip-service and increasing pressure to radicalize policy. A shame, really, because without that monkey on his back he might have been a far better president. We’ll never know. But the about-face he made on social issues between his positions when in Congress and his ascension to the White House are clearly concessions to the religious wing of the party. Clinton is a Baptist, but he ran the most secularized administration possible. GWB is…

Well, we know what he is.

Romney’s smarter than Bush. I doubt his vice president will run anything, whoever it might be. And as far as it goes, his speech is based on a solid ground. He did make one statement that can be construed as religious partisanship, namely that religion and freedom go together or fall separately. What about secularists? Given that most fundamentalists and many fringe christians have tended to see secularism as a religion (albeit one they detest), I don’t think he intended to shut atheists or agnositics out. In the vocabulary of the religious, we secularists adhere to a faith, we serve a religion–a poor, headless, ignorant religion, according to them, but still–and therefore we can be included, too.

So where’s the problem? Most people, whether they admit it or not, already put a wall between their religion and the way they deal with the world at large. If they didn’t, frankly, they wouldn’t try to make things better in this life for anyone. It only follows that if the world is going to end or if the most important thing is the afterlife, then any effort put into making better homes, developing better health care, solving environmental problems, trying to get better educations for our children are all wastes of time and energy. But while many people claim to believe in the promises of their religions, they act as if the world isn’t going anywhere and that this life is the only one they’re going to get, so we better make it as good as we can.

A politician, though, has a higher responsibility–to reflect the concerns of a constituency. So who is Romney’s constituency?

Fundamentalists don’t trust Mormonism. It ain’t, to them, christian. So if he gets elected, will he have their support? Will he understand their needs? Do they even speak the same language?

(Just as a side issue, here. It’s easy to take potshots at Mormonism. Its beginnings are recent enough to be well-documented. Joseph Smith was a dowser who wasn’t very good at it and there were a number of clients who sued him for misrepresentations and failure to deliver. He “discovered” a new version of christianity, founded a movement, and left New York. To many people, it’s obvious he was a smooth-talking charlatan with a gimmick. In that regard, he was not at all unusual in that time or place. It is, however, difficult to understand why it took root the way it did. But success is attractive and, for better or worse, Mormonism survived and prospered. It’s much harder to poke holes in the founding of christianity, although one reading of the conversion of Paul–and it’s very clear in the text to modern eyes–is that he suffered an epileptic seizure and heard voices, a phenomenon well-documented today, but for some reason unpersuasive to Believers. Nevertheless, the same questions apply–why would anyone buy into either religious movement?)

At the end of the day, when we go to the polls to elect a new president, Romney is right—his religious should not be a barrier to his running or being elected. Other things should guide us. Policy things. And on that basis, I certainly won’t vote for him. If he holds these policy opinions because of his religion, so be it. My problem with him is that he indeed holds those opinions. It doesn’t matter why.

The question we really have to ask of people like Romney is this: if you discover that you were wrong in your policy decisions, will you–can you–change your mind?

Someone who is profoundly committed to a religious view of the world, and has declared that religion is to be part of his administration, may find that he cannot say Yes to that. And that is a far more serious problem than the specifics of whatever religious creed one might profess


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Category: American Culture, Communication, Culture, Current Events, History, Politics, Religion

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (9)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    Mark asks (concerning religious conversion), "Nevertheless, the same questions apply–why would anyone buy into either religious movement?"

    Why did people become Christians? Why did people become Mormons? Why did people become Nazis? Why did people join the KKK? For better or worse, leaders of new movements — revolutionary leaders — tap into hidden desires and unstated prejudices.

    For instance, I recently heard a televangelist exhorting listeners to become Christians because (I'm paraphrasing) Christianity promises *better things* than do other religions. Don't you *want* to live forever? Don't you *want* to see your dead loved-ones again? Don't you *want* eternal bliss? Don't you *want* your enemies to roast in hell for all eternity? Well, that's what Christianity promises, so come join us: become a Christian! That was the gist of this preacher's pitch.

  2. Grumpy,

    Which suggests strongly that all such affiliations are utlimately self-serving. But people cling to them long after any benefit is shown to be ephemeral at best.

    (Besides, just so you know, the question was more than a little rhetorical._

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Stanley Kutler of Huffpo, commenting on Romney's religious vision: 

    JFK ended his remarks promising to "faithfully execute the office of president" and would "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution . . . so help me God." Romney's peroration is more in tune with our times. "Let us give thanks to the divine 'author of liberty'," he said. Finally, with words approaching an anthem: "God bless the United States of America." . . .

    In 1962, the Supreme Court struck down a state-mandated and authorized prayer in the public schools. Two days later, President Kennedy deftly defended the decision in a nationally-televised press conference, one of the first of its kind. (Eisenhower's were given on a tape-delayed basis.) "We have in this case a very easy remedy," Kennedy said, "and that is to pray ourselves. We can pray a great deal more at home, we can attend our churches with a good deal more fidelity, and we can make the true meaning of prayer much more important in the lives of our children. I would hope that as a result of this decision, all American parents will intensify their efforts at home, and the rest of us," he concluded, "will support the constitution and the responsibility of the Supreme Court in interpreting it."

    Can we imagine a president today — or a presidential candidate — speaking with such candor and historical understanding of American pluralism? (Let alone wit!) The mind boggles.

    For the entire post, see here.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Who was that other famous Mormon who ran for President of the U.S.? Oh, yeah. It was Joseph Smith himself, who ran in 1844. The London Times ran a piece on that 1844 campaign today:

    But in that campaign, Smith coined a term that strangely resonates today. “There is not a nation or a dynasty now occupying the earth which acknowledges almighty God as their lawgiver,” Smith told the Neighbor newspaper in Nauvoo, Illinois. “I go emphatically, virtuously and humanely, for a theodemocracy, where God and the people hold the power to conduct the affairs of men in righteousness.”

    I learned of this article through the blog of the author (Andrew Sullivan).  For the Times article, go here.  Sullivan argues that Romney explicitly excludes non-believers from public participation:

    And then you noticed that Romney’s embrace of pluralism does not actually include atheists or agnostics or those with no faith at all. This was not a minor oversight. In fact those who want to preserve a secular hue to public debates were given no quarter: “It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.”

    what Romney represents is not quite as benign as he makes it out to be. I would have had no qualms in supporting a Mormon for the presidency, as long as he vows to represent people of all faiths and none. But Romney decided against that. That matters. It is veiling intolerance under the guise of tolerance.

    Nonbelief is rooted in the same freedom of conscience as belief. In fact they are inseparable. Freedom of religion must mean the right to come to the conclusion that there is no God at all. By eliding that critical piece of American mosaic, Romney revealed that he isn’t actually a pluralist. He is the anointed son of the organised religious right. And his own religion is still irritatingly in the way.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    It's both amusing and frightening to see the various Republican candidates tripping over each other to pander to Christian conservatives. They want to turn America into a Protestant theocracy, despite the fact that (as I've mentioned before) nearly every theocracy on our planet is a region of heavy violence. Theocracies just don't work, and it's long past time more Americans realize it. When people who worship one invisible god seek to overpower their neighbors who worship other invisible gods (or no god), nothing good can come of it.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    At Daylight Atheism, Ebonmuse weighs in on the Romney presentation:

    By repeating the right-wing rhetoric about how separation of church and state is fully compatible with official sanction of belief in God and discrimination against atheists, Romney shows what his intent is. He doesn't truly want a candidate's religious beliefs to be considered irrelevant. He's just pleading for the circle of religious bigotry toward outsiders expanded slightly to include him – so that he can be on the inside, hurling barbs at those who believe differently, rather than on the outside, on the receiving end of those barbs from his fellow theocrats.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's Romney preaching incoherently about the religion of oil: Romney: "Bush has "strengthened our economy by getting us off of foreign oil"

  8. Rick Massey says:

    Erich: I think you are exactly right about what Romney is trying to do. We cannot realistically expect politicians to separate their religious beliefs from their decision making progress. It reminds me of the "I was demon possessed" defense to murder. It seems like that should guarantee a guilty verdict. "My defense is that something I cannot control compels me to kill people." As a juror, why should it matter whether or not you believe in demon possession? If you don't believe in it, you're done. He has no defense. If you believe in it, this guy is obviously too dangerous to turn lose into society. Either way, you don't have to guess how that individual will act in the future.

    Ordinarily, I would not believe Romney could ever actually get votes from the Christian far right. They are totally convinced that Mormonism is a cult. And because they think their world view is the center of everything – and the reason for everything, they must believe his ultimate goal would be to lead the country into Mormonism. It’s a ploy of the devil and they will not fall for it.

    But if they are faced with a Mormon on the one hand, and a Kenyan anti-Christ on the other, well I guess they will just have to pray about it. Maybe that would be a good time to pull their noses out of the process and render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Rick: I'm afraid that for many on the far right nothing belongs to Caesar anymore. That's the mantra, anyway. Everything belongs to "God" and "God" is a projection for what they want, which is to believe that free market fundamentalism (i.e., social darwinism) is the "best" way. What they are really seeking, in my mind, is a moral holiday for their entire lives.

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