Mitt Romney's recent speech on religious freedom was very revealing. He expressed his belief in some foundational principles that are necessary to maintaining the constitutional mandate to avoid the establishment of religion while at the same time apparently betraying his own beliefs.
To his credit, Romney said “we do not insist on a single strain of religion – rather, we welcome our nation's symphony of faith.” He also pointed to his record of keeping his Mormonism a private faith that informed his decisions without dictating his politics. He rightly suggested that “Americans do not respect believers of convenience. Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.” Or at least let us hope that cynicism has not taken such a hold in the electorate that this is no longer true. He also lifted up a number of faith traditions for praise: Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, Lutheranism, Judaism, and even Islam. He stated his view of tolerance this way, “Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.” He pointed out that our nation has not always lived up to its high principles citing the banishments of Ann Hutchinson, Roger Williams, and Brigham Young, for their unacceptable religious convictions. Ironically, within his own speech, he too seemed to fail to “walk the talk.”
In a particularly contradictory moment Romney first suggested that "The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion,” but immediately added, “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.” He believes that those expressions belong in our pledge and on our currency. He also thinks that nativity scenes and menorahs belong in the public square. If this is the path to tolerance, where does it end? In the area of public display of religious faith the only manageable position is to exclude it totally. This also begs the question of how to respect those of no faith. Romney himself suggests that recent efforts to keep church and state separate have gone so far as to effectively create a new religion of secularism. This begs the question of whether an expression of secularism should be welcome in the public square.
All of us have biases that make up the belief systems that guide our actions. Some of our belief systems include a belief in God or gods, others don't. If only those who believe in a single God are capable of being good citizens then our government schools must start teaching religious practice as part of training good citizens, and those who don't share that belief cannot be first class citizens. Clearly this would be unconstitutional and unwelcome. Those of us for whom religious beliefs matter should likewise be troubled by the thought that the government might attempt to teach our beliefs. Which particular doctrines would be taught? The only acceptable position is one broad enough to accept all citizens of any faith, or of no faith. Romney is welcome to bring his faith to the public square, indeed should be praised for clearly sharing his biases. But let us hope that whomever is elected president will truly live out a commitment to represent all the people, not drawing any lines that exclude any citizen.