The Crisis of Faith
Mitt Romney obviously felt he had no choice but to give a speech yesterday on his Mormon faith. Even by the low standards of this campaign, it was a distressing moment and just what the nation’s founders wanted to head off with the immortal words of the First Amendment: A presidential candidate cowed into defending his way of worshiping God by a powerful minority determined to impose its religious tenets as a test for holding public office.
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.
Mr. Romney tried to cloak himself in the memory of John F. Kennedy, who had to defend his Catholicism in the 1960 campaign. But Mr. Kennedy had the moral courage to do so in front of an audience of Southern Baptist leaders and to declare: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
Mr. Romney did not even come close to that in his speech, at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas, before a carefully selected crowd. And in his speech, he courted the most religiously intolerant sector of American political life by buying into the myths at the heart of the “cultural war,” so eagerly embraced by the extreme right.
Mr. Romney filled his speech with the first myth — that the nation’s founders, rather than seeking to protect all faiths, sought to imbue the United States with Christian orthodoxy. He cited the Declaration of Independence’s reference to “the creator” endowing all men with unalienable rights and the founders’ proclaiming not just their belief in God, but their belief that God’s hand guided the American revolutionaries.
Mr. Romney dragged out the old chestnuts about “In God We Trust” on the nation’s currency, and the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance — conveniently omitting that those weren’t the founders’ handiwork, but were adopted in the 1950s at the height of McCarthyism. He managed to find a few quotes from John Adams to support his argument about America’s Christian foundation, but overlooked George Washington’s letter of reassurance to the Jews in Newport, R.I., that they would be full members of the new nation.
He didn’t mention Thomas Jefferson, who said he wanted to be remembered for writing the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia and drafting the first American law — a Virginia statute — guaranteeing religious freedom. In his book, “American Gospel,” Jon Meacham quotes James Madison as saying that law was “meant to comprehend, with the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.”
The founders were indeed religious men, as Mr. Romney said. But they understood the difference between celebrating religious faith as a virtue, and imposing a particular doctrine, or even religion in general, on everyone. As Mr. Meacham put it, they knew that “many if not most believed, yet none must.”
The other myth permeating the debate over religion is that it is a dispute between those who believe religion has a place in public life and those who advocate, as Mr. Romney put it, “the elimination of religion from the public square.” That same nonsense is trotted out every time a court rules that the Ten Commandments may not be displayed in a government building.
We believe democracy cannot exist without separation of church and state, not that public displays of faith are anathema. We believe, as did the founding fathers, that no specific religion should be elevated above all others by the government.
The authors of the Constitution knew that requiring specific declarations of religious belief (like Mr. Romney saying he believes Jesus was the son of God) is a step toward imposing that belief on all Americans. That is why they wrote in Article VI that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
And yet, religious testing has gained strength in the last few elections. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, has made it the cornerstone of his campaign. John McCain, another Republican who struggles to win over the religious right, calls America “a Christian nation.”
CNN, shockingly, required the candidates at the recent Republican debate to answer a videotaped question from a voter holding a Christian edition of the Bible, who said: “How you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you. Do you believe every word of this book? Specifically, this book that I am holding in my hand, do you believe this book?”
The nation’s founders knew the answer to that question says nothing about a candidate’s fitness for office. It’s tragic to see it being asked at a time when Americans need a president who will tell the truth, lead with conviction and restore the nation’s moral standing, not one who happens to attend a particular church.