Monday, December 10, 2007

Religion and the Public Square

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.


David J. Spuria said...

I think I sort of, kind of agree with your premises. But I wonder how far we take the pledge to allow everything and nothing, and then still be something. In other words, your passionate views on poverty, climate change and equality are likely driven by your relationship with Jesus. Jesus animates, validates and authenticates your desire for change. I would argue that a belief in secularism cannot duplicate that kind of devotion. I would also argue that some of the other major religions may also not be the motivator that Christianity is. That makes one's faith extremely important. It also makes the content of that faith equally important. That's why people are examining Mormonism so much. And Christians have valid concerns. If I were the smartest presidential candidate, regardless how deeply ingrained that faith was, I'd research what that faith entailed. I'd figure out who Joesph Smith was. I'd take a hard look at all faiths and make the best choice possible. Because "it's the faith of my fathers" is not enough to base one's faith on tradition alone. One must know what their faith means. And it must be a faith that is real. One that has serious elements of truth and plausiblity. In this sense, I'm not sure all faith traditions are created equal. There are elements to certain faiths that need explanation. Mormonism would be one of them. It's up to Mitt Romney to bring his case to us and to explain all the anomolies tied up in Mormonism. Christians do it all the time. And other faith traditions explain themselves as well. An informed candidate must have an informed faith.

Culture Dove said...

Dave, so good to hear from you again, when you stop working your fingers to the bone let's have coffee!

I hear what you are saying and I hope you hear from me (perhaps more strongly in prior posts) that I want all faiths welcome in the public square. My particular issue with Romney was that he started saying that and then spoke of a much more limited expression of religion (i.e. monotheism) as the proper expression for America. I would argue that everyone truly ought to bring their faith and philosophy to the public forum for consideration. We should make our arguments passionately for positions informed by our faiths. BUT none of us should have our faith endorsed as the only one, or among the few, that are acceptable. All faiths must be acceptable and no faiths should have official status. That is where I think Romney missed the mark.