Thursday, December 13, 2007

Unlike JFK, Romney Would Impose Religious Right Morals on the Rest of Us

“JFK’s speech was to reassure Americans that he wasn’t a religious fanatic. Mitt’s was to tell evangelical Christians, ‘I’m a religious fanatic just like you.’”

That harsh judgment came from Jon Krakauer, author of Under the Banner of Heaven, a best seller about the Mormons, when columnist Maureen Dowd asked him about Mitt Romney’s 12/6 speech on religion in America.

Some may find his assessment simplistic, even a caricature of what Romney said. After all, a few commentators thought that Romney actually elevated the debate about the role of religion in our country.

And several suggested that Mike Huckabee, gaining in Iowa by telling every camera “Faith doesn’t just influence me, it really defines me,” challenged Romney to say the same about his Mormon faith—which was calculated to make Romney look bad no matter how he replied.

On the first page of his speech, Romney sounded like he was offering an alternative to Huckabee. Romney’s comeback was, “I do not define my candidacy by my religion...

“Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin…

“As governor, I tried to do the right as best I knew it, serving the law and answering to the Constitution. I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution—and of course, I would not do so as president. I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.”

Like John F. Kennedy's words to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, Romney’s seemed aimed at reassuring voters that he would never allow his church to tell him how to run the country.

He seemed to echo JFK: “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, nor imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office… I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

As Romney’s speech went on, however, it became clear that he did not share Kennedy’s heartfelt belief “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

For although Romney agreed that churches should never impose teachings about their faith on the nation, he made a gaping exception for their teachings about morals. Indeed, Romney made the stunning assertion that “while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions.”

To what extent this “common creed of moral convictions” actually exists is arguable. But insofar at it does, Romney has no problem imposing it on fellow citizens. He quotes John Adams’ opinion favorably: “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people.”

When Romney says, “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,” he literally means that freedom requires government to impose at least the moral codes on which major religions agree. Citizens who deny this common creed or the government’s right to codify it in laws are dismissed as “the religion of secularism.” There is no room for the freedom from religion which the constitutional separation of church and state requires.

This is a far cry from JFK. When Kennedy said, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he meant absolute.

He explicitly cited a 1948 statement by the U.S. Bishops that strongly endorsed church-state separation—a statement issued less than a year after the courts officially adopted Thomas Jefferson’s model of a wall of separation between church and state as binding and normative.

Kennedy said, “I believe in an America…where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council or Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials…”

And among those church positions that government should never impose on the public he specifically included those on moral issues. He even made reference to birth control, divorce, censorship and gambling as explicit examples.

So Krakauer’s judgment appears not only warranted, but inescapable. Like the religious right that elected Bush and seems increasingly enamored of ordained Baptist minister Huckabee, Romney favors imposing religious moral values on those who disagree with them.

As president, he would see himself as the arbiter of our “common creed of moral convictions.” Those who disagreed would be dismissed as godless secularists—to whom the Constitution evidently gives no rights—even though some of the dissenters might be devout Episcopalians or liberal Catholics or followers of non-Christian world religions with millions of adherents.

In this light, it remains John F. Kennedy who elevated the discussion about religion in the United States. Mitt Romney did nothing to add to JFK’s insight, constitutional analysis, defense of religious tolerance and commitment to liberty in matters religious. In fact what Romney did was to detract from Kennedy’s achievement, by denying that the separation of church and state should protect us from the imposition of churches' moral views, including those of the religious right.

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