December 20, 2007
If there’s any reason to reject a candidate for president, it’s for sloppy thinking. You not only want a person with proven executive skills; you want one with the ability to comprehend practical issues of policy and abstract issues of theory and clearly think them through. For the last seven years we’ve had a president whose decisions seem to have erupted from unreasoned moral or ideological impulse or even self-admitted commands from a higher power. It is historically true that Americans are derisive of intellectuals, and so it’s no wonder that in the 2000 election half the voters laughed with George Bush for his affability and sentence-mangling and the other half laughed at Al Gore for his pedantry and obsessive mustering of facts. Now Gore has won the Peace Prize, and Bush has won the War Prize.
Judging from his "Faith in America" speech of December 6, publicized as a major address, Mitt Romney may not be the candidate to consider. Rather than a cogent exposition of the role of religion in public life, it is a series of disjointed and often contradictory pieties and platitudes that does little to further discourse on this important topic. Analysis of the speech would make a good assignment in a course in logic or expository writing.
Because Romney’s speech had a paradoxical purpose — on one hand to dispel suspicions that his Mormon faith would rule his political life, and on the other to burnish his credentials with the evangelical bloc whose faith rules their political life — it’s no wonder he’s conflicted. Among his snippets of thought: He believes in "religious liberty," but only for the religious; if "freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom," what about the freedom not to believe? He believes in the separation of church and state, but also believes some people have taken it "well beyond its original meaning, . . . intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism." He asserts that the authority of churches "is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin," and yet he wants "judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests." Ultimately, he tries to reconcile these opposites by reducing the God of all religions to a smiley-faced "Creator" who bestows liberty and establishes a "common creed of moral convictions," and whom America should acknowledge "on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history."
What kind of a God is that?
Romney labors to assert that this nation was founded on religious faith, but any recent reading on the genesis of the Republic shows quite clearly just how skittish the Founders were of religion-inspired governmental systems. They only gave a nod to God, which to most was an abstract moral force, more natural than divine. Jefferson’s effort to purge the New Testament of "superstition" by scissoring out the religious passages and leaving only the ethical ones reflects the general belief of his colleagues. Had they escaped their own time, they’d have easily disposed of God entirely. Jefferson’s work, the Declaration of Independence, refers to a "creator" and "divine providence," but these are terms more philosophical than religious; when he writes about "the laws of nature and of nature’s God," God comes second. And when it came to writing the Constitution, the Founders refused to mention God at all; it is "we the people" who ordain and establish it.
Religion is a briar patch in a pluralistic society, and few of its own social goals have been accomplished by invoking it. The abortion debate is a prime example. By framing their position in religious terms, it has been impossible for the anti-abortion movement to make a convincing case either in courts of law or in the mind of the public at large. The critical philosophical questions on the nature and protectability of human life can rarely be discussed when religious absolutes overwhelm them.
To my mind, the most successful attempt of a religious body to articulate a universal ethical stance is the Catholic Church’s teaching on social justice. Because the Church had a fully-developed philosophical tradition parallel to its theological one, it was able to set forth social principles that were accessible and understandable by anyone, religious or not. Beginning with Pope Leo XIII in 1891, several popes and councils of bishops developed a social theory based on the dignity of the person, human rights, and the common good. While God was acknowledged as the source of order in nature and society, the documents up through Vatican Council II (1962-1965) avoided scriptural and sectarian references. After Vatican II, Catholic social teaching as presented by Popes Paul and John Paul II took a more biblical and theological approach, which, I believe, undercut their effectiveness to the wider public.
Toward the end of his speech, Romney says that "we can be deeply thankful that we live in a land where reason and religion are friends and allies" — a statement that, like many of the rest, appears out of nowhere; nothing he’d said before either predicted or substantiated it. Would that it were so, but unfortunately religion rarely allies itself with reason in the current social climate.
It is all so much shouting and posturing, and Romney hasn’t done much to clear the air.