Romney’s speech has led to much bloviation. I watched Chris Matthews say how it was the best speech of this political season, although eventually he acknowledged that there were some problem areas. David Brooks has written a somewhat sensible column. The Boston Globe has an editorial entitled Romney on bended knee in which they note
Romney got applause when he criticized those who would supplant a faith-centered nation with "the religion of secularism." But given the amount of violence and intolerance that various religions have generated throughout history, it is unwise to insist that religious belief is a prerequisite for freedom.
I’m not sure that an ordinary school teacher aka blogger has much to add to the discussion, but as this is a question that concerns me, I will offer a few thoughts below the fold.
Let me set the context in which I wish to address this. First, I have been fascinated by religion for much of my life, and have often described my own life as an inchoate and constant search for meaning. In the process of my 61+ years I was raised as a non-practicing Reform Jew who had his Bar Mitzvah on his 13th birthday; attended Quaker Meeting while on active duty in the Marines in the 1960’s without officially joining; was baptized as an Episcopalian in the middle 70’s, spending the summer in an Episcopal Benedictine monastery; became an Orthodox Christian (like Russian or Greek) for 14 years, including directing choir, serving in lay leadership positions at parish, diocesan and national levels, and made repeated trips to monasteries here and in Greece, and had the abbot of a monastery on Mount Athos serve as my personal spiritual father for a decade; returned to Judaism first as an Orthodox Jew then as a Conservative Jew, for a total of perhaps a decade; and finally completed a journey that began as a freshman in College in 1963 when I joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), committing in the Fall of 2002 and officially enrolled as a member in early 2003. Along the way I picked up a Masters from a Roman Catholic Seminary, taught comparative religions and ethics to adults in a church, and teens first in a synagogue and then in a public high school. I have read extensively in religious traditions which I have never joined, and have found myself influenced by the poetry of several traditions, especially that of the Sufi Rumi, and have seen my own meditation practices and attitudes towards life strongly influenced by a number of Buddhist teachers.
I also teach government, with an especial reverence (the word is used deliberately) for the ideas of separation of church and state, whether it is reference to Article Vi and the "no religious test" statement, the First Amendment’s two clauses on religion (no establishment and free exercise), Washington’s letter to the Jewish Congregation in Newport, or Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists from which the term "wall of separation" is obtained.
And perhaps it is because my own religious association has, with the exception of the Episcopal Church, always been with minorities that I am sensitive to aspects of religious discrimination.
My AP government students are now studying Congress. Yesterday we explored the demographics of who becomes a Member or Senator. It is interesting to look at the religious background. In the entire history of our nation there has been one Hindu, one Muslim (Keith Ellison), two Buddhists (Maizie Hirono and Hank Johnson). There is only one acknowledged atheist (Pete Stark). The percentage of Jews in the Senate is 6 times their percentage in the US Population. We have had four Arabs in the US Senate, but all have been Christians: Abdnor and Abourezk of SD, Mitchell of ME, and Sununu of NH (CORRECTION - there have been at least five - I forgot about Spencer Abraham. h/t to neon vincent who pointed this out). we discussed what if any conclusions we might draw about religion and politics. I will not share all of their comments, but since a number of my students - regardless of the family’s commitment - are themselves fairly hostile to or apathetic about religion, there were more than a few who expressed concern about the amount of religious rhetoric in American politics. And finally, personally, I have been thinking about this subject because there is a candidate for Congress in Virginia who has been making an overt outreach to people one might describe as progressive evangelicals - this is a potential candidate against Virgil Goode, although he will have a primary opponent. I have been asked what I think about him, and whether I might be willing to talk with him and then write about what he is doing.
That seems like a long setting of the context. I apologize, because I think it is necessary for the few insights or observations I might now offer.
I have no problem with a person having his or her life defined by his sense of faith, I know many people whose commitment to service to others, including in the political arena, is fueled precisely by how faith drives their life. I think it is good that a person has a core which, if they are willing, they can explain how it influences them.
And while it does not make me especially comfortable, as individual voters we each have the right to apply any test we desire, including a religious test, in determining for or against whom we will cast our votes. In fact, there is no real obstacle to a religious leader saying to those for whom s/he has pastoral responsibility that a particular candidate either should or should not receive the votes of the followers, although at that moment any exemption from taxation perhaps should be lifted: there is freedom from taxation so long as the religious body is providing for general well-being, and that exemption perhaps exists even though the body might advocate on policy, but explicit instructions about voting seem to me to cross the line. In a sense this parallels current law about the magic words in political advertising, whether it constitutes an in-kind contribution to a political campaign.
We were at the time of our founding, that is, during the period between 1775 when the American Revolution began in Massachusetts and the ratification of the Bill of Rights in December of 1791, already a diverse nation. One reason we did not move in the direction of an established religion was that such a move would have split the nation, at least along regional grounds: in New England the established churches were the Congregational Churches descended from the Puritans while in Virginia it was the Anglican Church. Some of the Middle Colonies like New York and Pennsylvania were already so diverse that no real religious establishment was possible. Yes, it is true that many states had religious tests, some maintaining them for many years. But already the direction was away from even informal religious tests, although this continued to be a struggle for many years: after all, one reason for the establishment of Catholic schools was that the public schools often had an explicitly Protestant orientation.
While the largest religion in the US is the Roman Catholic church, its adherents represent less than 1/4 of our population. The second largest denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention, but they have less than 10% of the population nationally, even if they may be an overwhelming majority in some communities below the Mason-Dixon line. Our religious makeup has changed over the years. The Episcopal Church may have produced the greatest number of Presidents but now numbers less than 1% of our population, and by comparison the Mormons and Jews are each about 2%, and it is possible that by now there are even more Muslims than that.
Even if we were to paint broadly and say the vast majority of Americans are Christians, not all denominations are willing to give that acknowledgment of a shared basis (followers of Jesus) to other denomination. It is not merely that some Catholics still hold to the Feeneyite assertion that outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation (an ancient doctrine that seems to be gaining strength again, especially under the current Pope); different sects are not sure what acknowledgement they will make of one another, whether 7th Day Adventists, or Unification Church members, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Mormons should be included in the broader definition of Christian. And there are some which would be willing to label Catholics as other than Christian. And many have no idea what to make of the Eastern Churches, whether Orthodox or Oriental (and the two groups acknowledge one another but are still split by doctrinal differences dating back to the 5th Century of the Common Era).
We are actually fairly ignorant about religion as a nation. Thus it becomes easy for some to demagogue on religion. That is a scary proposition, because once that begins, we can never be sure where it will stop. It is not just the Ann Coulters who represent a problem on this, generals who say while in uniform that their own god is a bigger or more real god than those who follow Islam. And the danger of even taking the first step, of asserting that freedom requires religion and religion requires freedom, as was asserted by Romney in what I thought was a frighteningly ignorant and dangerous speech, opens the door to all kinds of problems.
In 1940 the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because they viewed it as a violation of the Commandment against graven images, could be expelled from public schools, the nation saw a rash of burning of Kingdom Halls, the churches of the Witnesses - and here I note that one of the most famous of those incidents took place at Kennebunk, Maine. We have seen Jewish synagogues and temples bombed during the Civil Rights era in the South. More recently we have seen mosques desecrated, and efforts made to prevent additional mosques from being built to serve the increasing population of Muslims in this nation. Yet for all of this, the discrimination and hostility towards those who openly admit their own lack of religious commitment, or even opposition to religions, may be even greater. And we have seen oft seen this discussed on Daily Kos. Unfortunately at times the hostility of some towards all religion has been as intolerant as that of some religious types towards non-religion or towards religions other than those they are willing to accept.
A person who seeks to run for high political office should not be dividing us up, pitting one group against another. It is clearly no longer acceptable to do this on the basis of gender or of the color of our skins. It also should not be acceptable on the basis of our orientation and commitment to or against religion, whether of specific religious loyalty or even in the broadest sense of being religious or not. In that sense what Romney said yesterday was very dangerous, and he should be challenged on it. The theology of his faith is of no matter provided his commitment is to the Constitution he will swear or affirm to uphold, and it is appropriate for him to make that clear. But to pander to those who insist on an unofficial religious test before they will commit to support is to reject the rest of us who do not ascribe to such an approach, whether because it is not our own faith orientation, and I remind people that the evangelical types to whom Romney is appealing are a minority even among Republican voters) or as in my own case view it as contradictory to the principles upon which this nation is built.
The next step would be imposition by law of things one believes because of one’s religion. We have seen how devastating this can become of our political discourse in the arguments over abortion. Public policy should be justified on the basis of arguments that are not ultimately rooted in one’s religious beliefs. It is perfectly proper to advocate for one’s strong beliefs, but one must be able to find a basis other than one’s religious faith for such a policy lest one be moving in the direction of imposing a religious regime upon a nation diverse in its religious orientation, a diversity which includes as full participants those who deny the existence of a deity or oppose the idea of a organized religion.
I cannot say that Romney’s speech disqualified him in my mind as a potential president, because I had already reached the conclusion that there was no rationale for his running beyond his own ego. I will say that those in the press who failed to note the danger of his division between those with religion and those without have in my mind disqualified themselves as competent to attempt to explain politics and government: if they do not understand the importance of that statement, they truly do not understand the nature of what this nation has been and has to be if we are not to tear ourselves apart.