Romney misses the mark on the place of religion in politics
Mitt Romney scares me.
Not because he’s Mormon, which has been the center of conversation for the past few weeks. I’ve had plenty of friends and colleagues who are Latter Day Saints, and I know that they can think and act independently of the church on a variety of issues, even if they are in leadership positions.
Thinking independently is possible for believers of all faiths, as John F. Kennedy reassured the public during his own campaign for president, when the public was worried he might allow the Pope to rule on policy.
So I’m not worried about whether Romney will call his Mormon bishop every time he has to make a decision. That’s just silly.
No, what I’m worried about is that last week, in the speech Romney made to reassure the public about his Mormonism, he made it very clear that he believes in a frightening principle: you can’t be moral without religion.
Equally bad, it seems that he thinks that you can’t be moral unless you’re monotheistic. You either believe in a version of Romney’s one God (worship him as you please) or you can’t be part of the public conversation.
Romney said: “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.”
Nice thought, Mitt. Unfortunately, putting “under God” in the pledge and adding “In God We Trust” to our currency had nothing to do with the founders. These things were both added in the 1950s when Congress was terrified of the “godless communists.”
In his speech, Romney talked a lot about how America and religion are inextricably intertwined, how “liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government” and how “freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.”
He rails against those who “are intent on establishing a new religion in America the religion of secularism. They are wrong.”
But it is Romney who is wrong. America is not “a Christian nation,” as the evangelicals like to say. It was not founded on religion. It was explicitly founded to be secular, to be the one place in the world of the time where policy leaders didn’t pretend that they also had a direct line to God.
The founders may have believed in God, but what they really believed in was government by the people.
For it is the people who are central to America. It is the people who make decisions, who shape policy, who hold America’s future in their imperfect hands. The power is with the people, not with God.
America works not because her people are religious, but because we are free to not believe in religion. We are free to choose without losing any of our citizenship.
Romney scares me because in that speech last week, he didn’t seem to get that. (He went so far as to laud a hypothetical judge who made choices based on religion rather than, one imagines, the law.)
He didn’t seem to understand that if elected, he would be president of all Americans, even those who don’t believe, or aren’t sure. And when the president talks about religious belief in the public square, he can’t mean just those religious people who pray to a God familiar to Christians and Mormons, but those who pray to the Goddess, or to multiple gods, or who find divinity in nature, or who have a quirky religion of their own.
Religion is and should be part of the public conversation. People have beliefs; they want to express them. That’s fine. There should be room for the plurality of belief. Activists should be able to say that this or that policy goes against their idea of God or Goddess.
But the president, Congress, judges in America they can’t make decisions based on what they think God would want. That’s as bad as making decisions based on what the Pope would want, or what Gordon B. Hinckley, the head of the Mormon church, would want.
Our officials, elected and appointed, need to make decisions based on law and what is best for the people. Secularism is good. Faith is good, too, but our country should be the home of all faiths and no faith. No citizen should have to prove religious belief in order to be a good citizen.
This is why Romney scares me. Because in his speech, there are two classes of people: those who believe in a God he recognizes and those who do not. When he talks about that, he is not talking about America. Or at least, not the America I know.
Jennifer Vanasco is a syndicated columnist who blogs daily at the gay political site, VisibleVote08.com.
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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 14, 2007