Friday, December 7, 2007

The Religion Test

So far, most of the punditocracy is fawning over Mitt Romney’s speech on the role of religion in presidential politics. He’s getting praise from the left — E.J. Dionne calling it “remarkable” and “brilliant” (but hedging his bet with a “frustrating” thrown in), and of course most of the right is falling all over itself to proclaim it as the most magnificent piece of oratory since the Sermon on the Mount; Hugh Hewitt went as far to say that anyone who didn’t break out in orgasmic joy didn’t deserve to be alive… or something just as hyperbolic. (Although David Brooks accuses Romney of advocating a bland and pandering one-size-fits-all faithiness, to borrow a construct from Stephen Colbert.)

I didn’t listen to the speech, but I read the transcript and heard excerpts, and as I pointed out yesterday, Mr. Romney did exactly the opposite of what John F. Kennedy did in 1960 when he spoke about being a Catholic running for president. Rather than make it clear that religion was a private matter and had no place in the Oval Office, Mr. Romney placed it squarely in the middle of the room and pretty much told his audience along with the rest of the world that religion does matter in choosing a president and that a country that rejects the role of religion in making decisions for the future of the country do so at their peril.

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.

This is where he goes off the rails. In one fell swoop he demands that religion must be included in public affairs, which is contrary to the Constitution, and he disses anybody in America who may not be religious or who does not measure up to some standard of religious obedience and observance that he and the folks he’s pandering to may establish. He’s basically telling anyone who doesn’t place religion on the altar of American governance — the “secularists” — to shut up and stay out. I wonder what he would have told the people who wrote the Constitution who made sure that the two most prominent references to religion in that document — Article 6 and the First Amendment — were to keep religion out of the affairs of state. And yet he has the gall to say, “A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.” As long as it’s some faith, right? And some faith that is acceptable to the evangelical right wing.

It’s not often that I agree with David Frum, but this time I think he’s got it exactly right:

Had he focused instead on simply arguing that presidents need only prove themselves loyal to American values, he would have been on safe ground. Instead, he over-reached, super-adding to his civic appeal an additional appeal to voters who demand faith in Jesus as a requirement in a president. That is an argument that will not work – and a game Mitt Romney cannot win.

If one of Mr. Romney’s goals was to take the Mormon question off the table, this was not the way to do it. For the rest of the campaign and for however long he is a part of it, Mr. Romney will always be “the candidate who’s a Mormon,” or even to some “the Mormon candidate,” as if he’s the delegate from the Temple in Salt Lake City. Win or lose, it could well be that this speech is crucial in that event, and his legacy will be that every other candidate who follows him for the next forty years or so will have to pass the religion test.