Mitt Romney gave his religion speech today and, as expected, we found that he is no John Kennedy. He is also no Arnold Vinick, who would have told those who asked about his religion, as in this clip from The West Wing, that it was none of their business. Neither Kennedy’s speech or Vinick’s fictional comment would be accepted in today’s Republican Party.
My opinion on Romney’s speech doesn’t matter much as I was not the intended audience. I do question whether this speech will reassure Republicans who had doubts about Romney but we will need to wait for the reaction. In terms of a sensible statement on religion and politics, the speech was a disaster. This became apparent as soon as Romney claimed, “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” I’ve even heard George Bush show more respect to those who do not believe.
At least Romney did make mention of separation of church and state, which many conservatives totally deny. He also spoke of “our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty,” but he does not appear to understand these principles. Nor does he understand secularism. Romney said:
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.
Romney makes the same mistake made by many conservatives in confusing secularism for opposition to religion. When Romney cites the founding fathers he fails to understand that many of them were simultaneously religious and believers in secularism. As historian Joseph Ellis recently explained in his book American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies At The Founding Of The Republic, the creation of a secular state was one of the great accomplishments of the founding fathers.
Romney notes that, “our founding fathers defined a revolutionary vision of liberty, grounded on self evident truths about the equality of all, and the inalienable rights with which each is endowed by his Creator.” What he fails to understand is that, while the Declaration of Independence makes reference to a Creator, the Constitution was specifically written without such references. While religion might influence the thoughts of some of the founding fathers they also understood that such religious influence has no place in the establishment of government or government policy.
Unfortunately for Romney he is on the wrong side of the culture wars in running as a Republican. Those running for leadership positions in the Democratic Party, such as Harry Reid, are not hindered by their religion as a candidate’s specific religion does not matter to those who respect separation of church and state. The founding fathers, as well as many religious leaders of the time, realized that strict separation of church and state is essential to guarantee religious freedom. Being a Mormon did not limit the political ambitions of Mitt’s father, a former Governor of Michigan and former candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. That was a different era. Since that time conservatives have supported an increased role for religion in public life, and often promote a revisionist history which denies our heritage of separation of church and state. Mitt Romney is a victim of these changes. Either he does not understand this, or if he does understand he realizes that such a message would not be accepted by the party he wishes to lead.