Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Mitt Romney and the Republican religious test for office

This Thursday, Mitt Romney is scheduled to give a speech at George H. W. Bush’s Presidential library, in College Station, Texas. It is being hyped in advance as his “Kennedy moment” as a reference to John F. Kennedy’s speech during the 1960 presidential campaign before the Greater Houston Ministerial Assoication. Kennedy sought to allay fears that his Catholicism would influence his decisioin making as President of the United States. Mitt Romney wishes to allay concerns by conservative Christians that his Mormonism is a non-Christian cult. This, of course, comes as Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and ordained Southern Baptist minister, rises in the Iowa polls for the Republican presidential nomination.

However, Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, believes
… Kennedy's approach would not be a strong model for Romney because many Republican voters, particularly Christian conservatives, bristle at the notion of separation of church and state and want religion to be a guiding principle for the next president.

"Kennedy's speech was actually an antireligion speech; it was a don't pay-any-attention-to-my-Catholicism speech," Wolfe said. "In the 2007 Republican Party you can't do that, because it's a party that essentially has a religious test for the nomination."
Kennedy was unequivocal and argued for a strict separation of church and state:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President -- should he be Catholic -- how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
George Packer also sees the problem for Romney to argue for tolerance of his particular faith but intolerance of other (non-Christian) faiths and points of view:
Romney’s intention is the exact opposite of Kennedy’s. He’s caught in a trap of his own and his party’s making. Romney can’t raise the shield of secularism, as Kennedy did, because he is seeking the nomination of a sectarian party that’s built on a religious test. He can’t stand on any principle at all, secular or religious; instead, he has to win over the Christianists, who make up a large part of the Republican base, even though he belongs to a faith that most of them consider un-Christian. His eternal truth will be: “Hey, we’re not that different.” He parades his large and perfect family, he reminds us of his spotless personal life, he is dismissive of the possibility of appointing a Muslim Cabinet member, all to immunize himself against the religious bigotry of the voters he’s wooing. He’s going to do the same thing on Thursday. So no more comparisons with Kennedy, please.

The awkwardness of Romney’s situation was on painful display in last week’s Republican debate, in St. Petersburg, Florida. A questioner wanted to know whether the candidates believed in the Bible’s literal truth. Perhaps he knew that Mormons believe that the Bible isn’t the whole truth, that there are three other scriptures. Here’s how Romney tried to glide over the abyss and slip one past the fundamentalists:

ROMNEY: I believe the Bible is the word of God, absolutely. And I try…(Applause)…I try to live by it as well as I can, but I miss in a lot of ways. But it’s a guide for my life and for hundreds of millions, billions of people around the world. I believe in the Bible.

ANDERSON COOPER: Does that mean you believe every word?

ROMNEY: You know—yes, I believe it’s the word of God, the Bible is the word of God. The Bible is the word of God. I mean, I might interpret the word differently than you interpret the word, but I read the Bible and I believe the Bible is the word of God. I don’t disagree with the Bible. I try to live by it.
Three decades of creeping sectarianism had made it impossible for Romney or any of the other Republicans on that stage to denounce the irrelevance of the question, as Kennedy would have. Religiosity—as opposed to religion—now completely infects our politics. Democrats have to swear that they believe; Republicans have to swear that they believe literally. In 2008, Kennedy’s brand of secularism would be torn to pieces by pastoral commissars, fretful advisers, and a shallow press corps. If any candidate is in a position to emulate Kennedy’s speech, it’s Barack Obama, who, like J.F.K., is the victim of right-wing rumors abetted by the mainstream press—in Obama’s case, that he’s a secret Muslim.

But, since the wall between church and state is crumbling and Romney is going to give a speech about religion, let him answer a question that’s entirely legitimate in a secular country: Why did you never publicly question your church’s exclusion of blacks from full membership? The policy ended only in 1978, when Romney was thirty-one. Past candidates, including Bill Clinton, have had to explain their membership in discriminatory country clubs. What’s Romney’s reason for his long silence on the racist practices of his church? The answer would say a good deal more about the candidate’s character than his views on the Bible’s literal truth.

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