From start to finish, Romney’s speech this morning entitled "Faith in America" was a political — not a religious — speech. Romney wanted to say "I believe in the separation of church and state," yet he tried to reach out to evaneglicals who are moving toward Mike Huckabee and bring them back by saying in essence "Americans are people of faith, their leader must be a person of faith, and I’m the best faithful leader out there."
It’s kind of hard to reconcile those two, but Mitt gave it a good try.
The best way to do it, of course, is to go after the straw people. For instance, early on Romney said, "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."
No, Mitt, that’s not quite it.
What "some" people want removed from the public domain is the government taking official notice of and granting preference to (a) religious beliefs over non-religious beliefs, and (b) favoring certain religious believers over others with different beliefs (religous or otherwise). The Constitution says not one word about God, and refers to religion only twice — and both times in the negative, to constrain the government’s interaction with religion. People are free to impose a religious test (or any other kind of test, for that matter) on the candidates for office as they consider for whom they will vote; the government cannot put such a test as a requirement for holding office. People are free to be religious or not; the government must be blind to religion.
There were many things in the speech that indicated to me a great blindness on Romney’s part as to who believers are, what they think, and how they live. "I am always moved," said Romney, "by the many houses of worship with their steeples, all pointing to heaven, reminding us of the source of life’s blessings." Mitt, try checking out a storefront church sometime. Not a whole lot of steeples on those storefronts.
But the bigger problem I saw in Romney’s speech jumped out when he said this:
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.
For all Romney says about history in this speech, this paragraph is proof that his knowledge is shallow indeed. Abolition of slavery, for instance, divided families, congregations, and entire denominations. The Presbyterians split in 1861, and didn’t reunite until 1983, for crying out loud.
It’s also proof of a subtle religious bigotry. Despite his claim of a "common course" based on "great moral principles," there continues to be great division among religious people over all kinds of issues. Committed Roman Catholics, for instance, interpret "right to life" to mean opposition to the death penalty; evangelical fundamentalists see the death penalty as a completely separate issue. Some religious groups embrace GLBTs, while others do not. Yet Romney, trying to reach the evangelicals who are moving toward Huckabee, blithely says in essence, "all religious folks have the same moral beliefs." Sorry, Governor, but your moral beliefs are much different than mine, and also much different from a lot of evangelicals.
"We face no greater danger today than theocratic tyranny," says Romney — but he makes it clear he is talking only about "radical Islam." Romney’s language about America’s churches having a common moral creed and his assumption that every American is religious points to a different kind of tyranny from the TheoCon right. Says Romney, "And you can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me."
Where, pray tell, does that leave those who have not knelt in prayer to the Almighty?
The bottom line for Romney is that he has to reach out to the right wing religious voters. He mouths the words about separation of church and state to mollify moderates, but his strongest language is aimed directly at the evangelicals who are leaning toward Huckabee and others on the right, telling them that he’s a good, religious guy — and Americans need a good religious leader in the White House.
Lots of the pre-speech hype and post-speech spin has compared this speech with John F. Kennedy’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. In comparing the actual speeches, though, the endings make clear that Romney and Kennedy are two very different kinds of politicians, trying to reach two very different kinds of people.
Kennedy said this to close his speech:
But if, on the other hand, I should win this election, then I shall devote every effort of mind and spirit to fulfilling the oath of the Presidency — practically identical, I might add, with the oath I have taken for 14 years in the Congress. For without reservation, I can, "solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution — so help me God.
Compare that with Romney’s conclusion:
Recall the early days of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, during the fall of 1774. With Boston occupied by British troops, there were rumors of imminent hostilities and fears of an impending war. In this time of peril, someone suggested that they pray. But there were objections. ‘They were too divided in religious sentiments’, what with Episcopalians and Quakers, Anabaptists and Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Catholics.
Then Sam Adams rose, and said he would hear a prayer from anyone of piety and good character, as long as they were a patriot.
And so together they prayed, and together they fought, and together, by the grace of God … they founded this great nation.
In that spirit, let us give thanks to the divine ‘author of liberty.’ And together, let us pray that this land may always be blessed, ‘with freedom’s holy light.’
God bless the United States of America.
Kennedy’s last word is from the constitution, and Romney tells a wink-wink, nudge-nudge story about prayer. Kennedy wants to speak to all Americans; Romney wants to reach the evangelical right.
To paraphrase Lloyd Bentson, Mitt’s no Jack Kennedy.