07 December 2007

Faith in America?

That’s the title of Governor Mitt Romney’s speech yesterday, in which he defended his religion and argued that it should not be a hindrance to his being elected President. (For those of you who weren’t aware, Romney is an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons.) Many commentators have drawn parallels to John F. Kennedy’s speech to a group of Houston clergy in the 1960 Presidential campaign, in which he defended his Catholic faith. But when one reads both speeches, the parallels quickly disappear.

Romney’s speech was, first and foremost, an attempt to assuage the fears of the conservative Christian element of the Republican Party in his quest for the GOP nomination. Even though Romney said, “I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith”, he actually went on to cast his faith in terms that would render it acceptable to his intended audience. And while he asserted (correctly) that the Constitution prohibits religious tests for political office, he outlined his own theological beliefs in an effort to win over those conservative Christians, stating, “What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.”

Romney invoked America as being a “nation under God”, where God is trusted on the currency and the Pledge of Allegiance (conveniently omitting the fact that “In God We Trust” was only added to the Pledge in the Red Scare era of the 1950s). He decried those who “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.”

On the other hand, Kennedy spoke of an America in which all persons should be free to practice their faith, or observe no faith practices at all. As he put it,

I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end--where all men and all churches are treated as equal--where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice--where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind--and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

While Romney asserted that his religion was good enough to match up with the religious beliefs of a portion of his party’s supporters, Kennedy painted a picture of post-religious politics for America. Kennedy stated that the “religious issue” was not nearly as important as “the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms--an America with too many slums, with too few schools…”

Kennedy also said, “I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair”. Nowadays, however, it seems a virtual requirement for Presidential candidates in both parties to proclaim their own religious faith, so we are subjected to Hillary Clinton’s torturously awkward explanation of her private prayer life, and Mitt Romney’s defense of Mormonism as something conservative Christians shouldn’t fear, and the rise of Mike Huckabee in the polls solely because he happens to be the most avowedly, explicitly conservative Christian remaining in the race.

If there is truly no religious test for public office, would it be possible for an agnostic or atheist to succeed as a Presidential candidate? I seriously doubt it. I’m reminded of the film Contact (based on Carl Sagan’s novel), wherein Jodie Foster’s character loses out on the assignment of piloting the craft to make contact with the extraterrestrial aliens because she refuses to acknowledge the existence of God, while her boss conveniently adopts an acceptable “civic religion” tone in order to garner support.

In the end, then, it would appear that there really is a religious test for high office in America; not a specific denominational test, but a religious one nonetheless. So when it comes to the public political arena, in what do we have faith? Do we have faith in America, in the Constitution, in the rule of law, in moral truths and scientific progress and the noblest aspirations of humanity? Or do we require that faith to be expressed only in acceptably Christian theistic terms? Personally, I’d much rather live in John Kennedy’s America than in Mitt Romney’s.

Oh, and Governor Romney, you’re no Jack Kennedy. (Yeah, click on the link, you know you want to see it.)

P.S. Since it’s that infamous day, and in honor of my grandfather who was serving there on that day, remember Pearl Harbor and give thanks for all those who serve their country, regardless of how wrong-headed the politicians who currently control our nation’s foreign policy might be.

1 comment:

R. Elena Tabachnick said...

My local paper had the Romney and Kennedy speeches side-by-side (with a suggestion that Kennedy was the model for religiously-questioned presidential candidates). I was equally struck by the chasm that separated the two.

Strongly reminiscent of the recent UU World depiction of the early American struggle between Country-of-God and Country-of-liberty factions.

Another time, another cultural frame, same issue.