Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Dangerous Religiosity of Romney


What a peculiar day for the New York Times editorial and op/ed pages. First we have a reaction to Mitt Romney's "Religion in the Public Square" speech:
Mr. Romney spoke with an evident passion about the hunger for religious freedom that defined the birth of the nation. He said several times that his faith informs his life, but he would not impose it on the Oval Office.

Still, there was no escaping the reality of the moment. Mr. Romney was not there to defend freedom of religion, or to champion the indisputable notion that belief in God and religious observance are longstanding parts of American life. He was trying to persuade Christian fundamentalists in the Republican Party, who do want to impose their faith on the Oval Office, that he is sufficiently Christian for them to support his bid for the Republican nomination. No matter how dignified he looked, and how many times he quoted the founding fathers, he could not disguise that sad fact.
In examining Romney's speech, David Brooks got it right:
[Romney] insisted that the faithful should stick stubbornly to their religions, as he himself sticks to the faith of his fathers. He insisted that God-talk should remain a vibrant force in the public square and that judges should be guided by the foundations of their faith. He lamented the faithlessness of Europe and linked the pro-life movement to abolition and civil rights, just as evangelicals do.

* * *

The first casualty is the national community. Romney described a community yesterday. Observant Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Jews and Muslims are inside that community. The nonobservant are not. There was not even a perfunctory sentence showing respect for the nonreligious. I’m assuming that Romney left that out in order to generate howls of outrage in the liberal press.

* * *

In Romney’s account, faith ends up as wishy-washy as the most New Age-y secularism. In arguing that the faithful are brothers in a common struggle, Romney insisted that all religions share an equal devotion to all good things. Really? Then why not choose the one with the prettiest buildings?

In order to build a voting majority of the faithful, Romney covered over different and difficult conceptions of the Almighty. When he spoke of God yesterday, he spoke of a bland, smiley-faced God who is the author of liberty and the founder of freedom. There was no hint of Lincoln’s God or Reinhold Niebuhr’s God or the religion most people know — the religion that imposes restraints upon on the passions, appetites and sinfulness of human beings. He wants God in the public square, but then insists that theological differences are anodyne and politically irrelevant.
Another nearby column, by atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, illustrates the mendacity of Romney's position. Reacting to some (to Western eyes) bizarre and excessive sentences issued against women under the auspices of Shar'ia law, Ali asks,
It is often said that Islam has been “hijacked” by a small extremist group of radical fundamentalists. The vast majority of Muslims are said to be moderates.

But where are the moderates? Where are the Muslim voices raised over the terrible injustice of incidents like these? How many Muslims are willing to stand up and say, in the case of the girl from Qatif, that this manner of justice is appalling, brutal and bigoted — and that no matter who said it was the right thing to do, and how long ago it was said, this should no longer be done?
Romney, apparently, would have two responses to Ali:

First, she's an atheist, so who cares what she has to say. ("Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.")

Second, judges should be guided by the foundations of their faith. ("Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests.")

How dare you question a judge who applies the letter of the law, as guided by his faith, in advance of your "religion of secularism"?

I expect that if Romney were confronted with this example, he might respond along the lines of, "Islam? Oh, that's different." I'm sure he'd dress up his answer, but I suspect that at it's heart it would boil down to "that's different" - after all, as Brooks pointed out, the only reasonable interpretation of this speech is that he's pandering to a faction of religious conservatives, and they won't be in the least offended by the idea that their religious beliefs should be followed to the letter while those of other religions "are different." If not, I will reconsider my impression that his speech is shameless pandering, but I'm not holding my breath.

Ultimately, that's probably going to keep this speech from having any appreciable impact in Romney's standing in the polls. To much of his target audience, it seems that Mormonism is no closer to Christianity than is Islam.

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