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Archive for Sunday, December 9, 2007

Romney tries to draw line on church, state

December 9, 2007

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Here was Mitt Romney's problem, one of the toughest in American politics: He had spent most of his campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination in search of the faith vote while fleeing from talk of his own faith.

Now, Romney, a member of one of America's leading political and Mormon families, has delivered a speech that no historian of the current presidential election, or of contemporary politics and culture, will be able to ignore.

In an address at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, that may turn out to be the most enduring campaign speech of the past four decades, the former Massachusetts governor told Americans that he did not "define my candidacy by my religion" and promised that "no authority of my church ... will ever exert influence on presidential decisions."

Romney's speech was not delivered in a vacuum, politically or historically. Politically it came at a time when his campaign - so slick, so well-funded, so successful in choosing the times and places for its initiatives - was jolted by the rise of an unscripted, poorly funded candidate with deep roots in the Republican Party's evangelical base.

This new force is former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who burst to the front of the Republican pack in Iowa last week - a candidate who, it should not go unnoticed, threatened to beat the shrewd Mitt Romney MBA at his own game, which is to get more than a dollar's value for a dollar in spending. Indeed, Huckabee attracts twice as much evangelical support in Iowa as Romney does, according to a Pew Poll released last week - an important advantage given that evangelicals account for about two-fifths of likely caucus-goers.

Historically, Romney's remarks came at a time when the rhetoric of the religious sphere is intersecting with the rhetoric of the political sphere to a greater degree than it has in generations; it is not too much to say that in recent decades American politicians have added an invocation to their vocation.

The speech came with a ready-made historical backdrop: the address that Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts delivered to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in the 1960 campaign. In those remarks, the second Catholic presidential nominee in American history confronted head-on the skepticism (or worse) that some Americans had of people of his faith.

But like so much in our past, the folklore surrounding the Kennedy speech trumps the actual text. In our minds, Kennedy confronted the ministers by saying that if he lost his chance at the White House on the day he was baptized, then the nation was the poorer for that. In the American memory, this was perhaps the greatest statement ever delivered in support of diversity (a term not then in use, and a term that would have defied understanding at the end of the Eisenhower period).

Now we understand far more clearly that the separation of church and state is not at all the same as the separation of religion from American politics. "JFK's speech is very dated," says Wilfred M. McClary, the noted expert in American intellectual and cultural history who teaches at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "He played the strict separationist card. We've come a great distance in saying that religion does have a place."

Romney made that point. He argued for separation of church and state, not separation of church from state. But he made it clear that there was room in America for more than one church, and that all of them don't even have to be churches.

"Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history," he said. "These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree."

When Kennedy gave his speech, there prevailed in the United States the notion that Protestants, Catholics and Jews, for all their differences, and for all the very real tensions among them, and for all the fears they sowed about each other, nonetheless were mainstream and familiar figures - though I think it is possible to argue that there are elements in all religions that are odd, even fantastic. That may be why religions are called faiths.

Though the Book of Mormon is a book about Jesus, Romney had a bigger burden than Kennedy bore, speaking about a faith that, while native to American soil and one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, is newer than other religions and less familiar in the American pageant. In a nation where, as Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religious studies professor, puts it, "Americans are very religious but know nothing about religion," one of the things Americans think they know is that Mormons are different.

Evangelicals know one thing more: They compete with Mormon missionaries around the world. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll taken last month showed that Americans were far more ready to send to the White House a woman (69 percent said it would be acceptable) or an African American (63 percent) than a Mormon (38 percent).

Romney addressed matters of his own faith Thursday in providing America with its first real Mormon moment. "I believe Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind." But he also said that if he takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009, "that oath becomes my highest promise to God."

This is a country where religious forces have never been far in the background; the faith factor has often influenced our politics. And it is legitimate to argue that abolitionism, early feminism, prohibitionism and the civil-rights movement were fueled in large measure by clerics and were advocated in religious, even biblical, rhetoric. Now, this force that has been so influential in American reform is asserting itself in American elections.

"No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith," Romney said, "for if he becomes president he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths." To which I add: Amen.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Comments

Speakout 7 years ago

Look at the hypocrasy in America: We are the land of the free (except you can't be assured of privacy when making a phone call) and we have freedom of religion (unless one is running for president). What is that? Last night we witnessed the US Marine Corps Band play in celebration of the start of Chanuka or Hannuka celebrations. This is a Jewish holiday. We have a National Christmas tree. We start each legislative session with a prayer (not a universal one either). I am not opposed to religion - one should practice what one believes in my opinion. But for the US government to fund one or the other is not commensurate with the US Constitution. It states simply that the govt will not establish a religion. Aren't we establishing a religion to be Christian and Jewish by only supporting these celebrations? When will the Buddhists be permitted to have the US Marine Corps Band play at one of their celebrations, or Hindus or Muslims? And why does Romney have to be filtered for his religion? I thought we finally came to our senses when we elected John Kennedy. If one doesn't believe in the divinity of Jesus, is one prohibited from leading a sectarian government? Is being Evangelical the only test for a presidential candidate? (Look at the Evangelical president we have!) Is being Christian the most important thing a candidate must be? According to many historians, the greatest leaders mankind has ever seen was Ghandi and the Prophet Muhammad. Neither were Evangelical or Christian.

Logan5 7 years ago

Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history," he said. "These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree."

Not bases for criticism? Anyone who would believe that some guy in the 1800's had an angel appear to him with gold plates containing a new testiment simply can't be completely trustworthy, can they? What if someone found out that Romney was conned by someone who sold him shares of a bridge in Brooklyn. Would this be a basis for criticism?

I wonder how this speech would work if Romney was an atheist. Does religious tolerance include those that are not religious?

yourworstnightmare 7 years ago

Thanks to the fundamentalist xtian movement, it is now necessary for a candidate to prove that they are xtian in order to have any shot at this demographic, which is a large chunk of the GOP.

Just ask Huck. He is billing himself as a "christian leader".

The GOP has played with Bull. Now, out come the horns.

You lay with dogs; you get fleas.

Time to pay the piper.

The devil will get his due.

chungasrevenge 7 years ago

Mr Romney; Your family is prominent in a notorious church that proselytizes its views in a famously aggressive manner. Are you only now deciding to make a secret of your beliefs? And if so, why?

ndmoderate 7 years ago

"I wonder how this speech would work if Romney was an atheist. Does religious tolerance include those that are not religious?"

According to Romney, no. He was doing just fine in his speech until he excluded non-religious people.

He wants tolerance....for any and all types of believers only.

He would do well to read the writings of Thomas Paine.

Logan5 7 years ago

Huckabee believes in a strictly literal interpretation of the bible and he does not believe in evolution. We've got a guy like that in office now, do we really want another one? Apparently many of the voters in Iowa do.

Godot 7 years ago

One thing is certain: religious tolerance is not practiced by those who do not believe in any religion.

ndmoderate 7 years ago

"One thing is certain: religious tolerance is not practiced by those who do not believe in any religion."

I disagree. I'm non-religious and have no problem with other people being religious. That should be the beauty of being American: people are free to believe whatever they wish when it comes to religion. It's supposed to be a free country.

Logan5 7 years ago

An atheist is not the same thing as a secularist. I think of myself as having a measure of religious tolerance to the point where others religious beliefs do not have an adverse effect on me and my family.

Back to the topic of the article, I do not believe that one can simply ignore Romney's religious beliefs when it comes to making judgements about his viability as president and the decisions he will make on behalf of our country even in a completely non-religious context.

WilburM 7 years ago

One big problem here is that Romney essentially argued that religion needed to be a part of poltics, and that there was no place for the faithless. As a marginal believer at best (but one who believes completely in the freedom of religion), for the first time in my political life I felt that was not part of a specifi group that a president would have no time for. I'm not young, and this was a new feeling of exclusion -- but one that in other eras Catholics, Jews, (and today ) Muslims have felt, to say nothing of African-Americans and Latinos.

Not a good feeling about someone who would be presidnt of all the people.

yourworstnightmare 7 years ago

Romney is conceding that there is a religious litmus test for presidential office in this country.

He knows that a "non-xtian" could never be elected. This is why is taking such pains to convince that he is a xtian.

Now the Hucksterbee, there is a good "xtian leader".

EXks 7 years ago

Romney's religious speech is an exploding cigar, It just blew up in his face. Put a fork in 'em, he's DONE!

Speakout 7 years ago

The litmus test for the would be president should not be his religious beliefs. But his leadership skills. We should not ask him what he believes in, but what has he done to show the leadership skills necessary to govern the many different faiths and non-faiths in this country. I, personally, prefer one who can bring this divided country back together and if any history has proof, look at the hundreds of divisions in the "xtian" churches. Obviously they can't bring people together, so perhaps another leader with another faith could do better? Who knows, so that should not be the test.

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