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. 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.