Friday, December 7, 2007

Mitt Romney and Religious Freedom

I just watched Mitt Romney's address on religious freedom on YouTube. It's not a speech of Mormonism. Romney's address was a statement on faith and morality in American history. As such, Romney places himself in the great stream of American leaders who have steeled themselves against the great challenges of the day through the power of belief and the pride of this nation's respect for religious difference. Romney stands strongly with this majestic tradition.

Here's the background of yesterday's speech, from USA Today:

Republican Mitt Romney's much-anticipated speech Thursday on the role of faith in the USA echoed the message made by another Massachusetts politician seeking the White House nearly 50 years ago: Religious tolerance, not church membership, is what should matter to voters.

The former Massachusetts governor vowed to serve "no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest" if he makes it to the White House. Romney also defended his Mormon faith, which some Christians view as heretical.

"I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind," Romney said. "My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. … These are not bases for criticism, but rather a test of our tolerance."

The speech, delivered at the George Bush Presidential Library, underscored the crucial role that religion now plays in politics, especially in the GOP. Conservative Christians who solidly backed George W. Bush in 2000 are now divided among several Republican contenders, and their support is up for grabs in early states.

It's not clear if Romney's talk was successful in swaying evangelicals, according to the Wall Street Journal:

Although it included statements such as "I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God," Mitt Romney's speech on religious freedom elicited mixed reviews among some of the evangelical Christians whose votes are key to the Republican presidential nomination.

It remains to be seen if the former Massachusetts governor's address yesterday, intended to allay concerns about his Mormon faith, will boost his standing amid religious conservatives in early primary states, where he is facing competition from Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister.

Using historical references to illustrate the connection between politics and religion, Mr. Romney gave sporadic insights into his personal beliefs. He reasserted his affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ("I believe in my Mormon faith, and I endeavor to live by it") while saying he wouldn't allow church leaders to influence his decisions as president.

Mr. Romney said differences between his church and other religions should be a test of tolerance, not fodder for criticism, and he paid homage to other traditions, including "the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals" and "the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims."

Some Christians didn't want to hear such preaching about plurality. The speech didn't win the vote of Republican Steve Carlson, a Pentecostal Christian and a consultant for the nonprofit voter-education organization Iowa Christian Alliance. "If my choice is between Mike Huckabee, who I know is saved, and Gov. Romney, who as a Mormon...I'm going to pick Mike Huckabee," Mr. Carlson said.

In the days leading up to the speech, Mr. Romney said it wouldn't be about his faith. He used the word "Mormon" only once, about five minutes into his address. In contrast, he mentioned "God" 15 times.

A sizeable group of voters remain mystified by Mormonism. Bernie Hayes, a 52-year-old from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said he finds the religion's tenets illogical and too different from mainstream Christianity. "I don't want a president who believes something so off-base," he said. The fact that Mr. Romney doesn't want to discuss his faith "makes it worse," said Mr. Hayes, who supports Mr. Huckabee.

"I don't think it answered any questions about the Mormon religion and how it plays into his candidacy," said Joe Mack, director of the office of public policy for the South Carolina office of the Southern Baptist Convention. "I'm not sure it changed the minds of South Carolina Baptists." Mr. Mack said he will choose a candidate based on where he stands on abortion issues.

Janis Groves, a Baptist from Bryan, Texas, who attended the address, was pleased that Mr. Romney didn't delve into specifics. "No," Ms. Groves, 59 years old, said curtly when asked if she wanted to learn more about the religion. "We are leery."

As I suggested above, it's helpful to look at Romney's speech in the context of America's religious tradition. The United States has no state-sponsored religion, but we are a people of God. Every president reaffirms this country's essential spirituality. I don't think Romney will fail that test, if elected president. He recognizes the power of faith as a driver of human goodness. I liked this section, from the text of his address:

"It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter -- on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. 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.

"We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America -- the religion of secularism. They are wrong.

"The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.

Romney came off as tremendously caring and understanding of diversity. I think we need that in a president. Further, Romney has clinched the deal on the morality of leadership - i.e., this is a man who's got the integrity and decency to lead the country at a time when, as Romney notes, fundamental moral purpose takes a back seat to many of our more material pursuits.

Here's the challenge Jon Meacham posed for Romney earlier this week, in his essay at Newsweek:

Romney ought to call on Americans to recover and respect what Benjamin Franklin called our public religion: the belief that there is a divine force at work in the world, by whatever name, and that we render homage to it by doing good to others. Acts of charity and grace need not be religiously inspired, but many are. Religious people can be intolerant, cruel and exclusionary; they can also be broad-minded, kind and welcoming. And the same can be said of people who adhere to no religious faith. Yet it is the case that many Americans are religious—or say they are—and that the fundamental promise of the Founding, that all men are created equal, is grounded in the divine, as the gift of the "Creator."

I think Romney has made the call, and I think his speech powerfully restates the doctrine that we are a people blessed with "the gift of the 'Creator.'"

See also, "Romney Nails It: Faith in America," over at The Conservative Manifesto; check out the commentaries at Memeorandum as well.


UPDATE: There's considerable buzz over Romney's speech, and naturally not all favorable.

Eleanor Clift remarks that Romney's address was a quintessential Republican speech:

If Romney gets the nomination, this is the moment that lifted him above the others and made him a plausible and pluralistic leader. He pledged that if elected president he would serve "no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest." For the first time in his richly endowed quest, he rose above the day-to-day jabs on the campaign trail to deliver a speech that inspires. It was billed as a message for white evangelical Christians, who have been reluctant to embrace Romney because they're wary of his religion. But it was really a vision speech for a broader Republican Party adrift in the wake left by George W. Bush and searching for its moorings.

See also a trio of Wall Street Journal commentaries, from the editors, Peggy Noonan, and Naomi Schaefer Riley.

The Washington Post, I imagine, captures the concerns of many when it argues that Romney dismissed non-believers:

Where Mr. Romney most fell short, though, was in his failure to recognize that America is composed of citizens not only of different faiths but of no faith at all and that the genius of America is to treat them all with equal dignity. "Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom," Mr. Romney said. But societies can be both secular and free. The magnificent cathedrals of Europe may be empty, as Mr. Romney said, but the democracies of Europe are thriving.

TPM Central puts it more pointedly: "Romney Spokesman Won't Say If Atheists Have Place In America."