Monday, December 03, 2007

Governor Romney to address his faith

Mitt Romney has decided to give The Speech that so many people have been wondering whether he'd give - about his faith and his view of the role of religion in America. An email from his campaign announces that the speech will be this Thursday as President George H.W. Bush's presidential library.
“Governor Romney has made a decision to deliver a speech titled ‘Faith in America.’

“The governor has been invited to The George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas to deliver this address on Thursday, December 6.

“This speech is an opportunity for Governor Romney to share his views on religious liberty, the grand tradition religious tolerance has played in the progress of our nation and how the governor’s own faith would inform his Presidency if he were elected.

“Governor Romney understands that faith is an important issue to many Americans, and he personally feels this moment is the right moment for him to share his views with the nation.”

“Governor Romney personally made the decision to deliver this speech sometime last week.
Although the venue doesn't indicate an endorsement by the former president, it will probably serve as a signal of support for Romney's message, if not his candidacy. And the Texas location will evoke even more comparisons to JFK's speech in Houston to Southern Baptists.

I think that this speech is a definite reaction to Huckabee's climb in the polls and Huckabee's stress on his qualifications as a "Christian leader" in his latest ad. Basically, Huckabee has advertised two main reasons to vote for him: Chuck Norris supports him and he's a Christian with authentic conservative values. As the New York Times has pointed out, Huckabee has been benefitting from Evangelicals who don't like Mormons. And his aides know that such anti-Mormon feelings work in their guy's favor.
Mr. Huckabee’s advisers admit privately they are cognizant of how Mr. Romney’s religion can work against him and how Mr. Huckabee’s evangelical roots are to their advantage at least among some voters. They pointed out, however, that all candidates have aspects of their biographies that can be beneficial or not, depending on the audience.
Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic points to this quote from Huckabee in an interview with Salon to show the subtle way that Huckabee is playing this.
Q: You have declined in a couple of interviews to say whether or not you feel the Mormon religion is a legitimate type of Christianity, or a type of Christianity. I have spoken with a number of evangelicals, and one of them was talking about her concern [regarding Mitt Romney] of having a president who might not be praying to the God she believes in. The other concern I have heard is having a president who would lead people not to be saved in other Christian faiths by promoting another very evangelical religion. Do you share any of those concerns?

A: You know, I just don't think that's an appropriate issue for me to get into, the nuances of the Mormon faith. And it is not the sole criteria by which I think a person should be judged fit or unfit for the presidency, any more than I think people ought to necessarily make it the defining issue for me. I am very comfortable answering questions about my faith. I am probably the only candidate that has been subjected to this sort of detailed questioning about faith. I don't think Romney has even been. And my faith is a pretty mainstream view of the world and of the Bible. But I accept that as part of the whole process. I just think all of us should be prepared to answer questions regardless of what our views are, and let people sort that out. But that's why I don't feel comfortable in saying, "Let me tell you what this guy believes." You know what? I don't know what he believes. Even if I knew what his church believes, I don't know that I can say what he believes until he expresses it.
On the surface this seems to be Huckabee disclaiming any wish to examine Romney's faith, but beneath the surface he is explicitly saying that questions about a person's faith are quite legitimate and Romney should be prepared to answer such questions.

I feel it's a sad day that this is what we've come to - that candidates should be questioned about their particular beliefs and put into the position of defending their faiths. Personally, I don't have a dog or a religious precept in this fight. I'm basically agnostic. Neither of their faiths appeal to me and they both seem equally problematic. I have never been convinced that miraculous events are more legitimate because they took place over two thousand years ago or over a century ago. I think people adhere to their religions because of their faith in its message, and those who don't share that faith should just get out of the business of questioning what they believe. In times of trouble in my own life, I've sometimes wished that I had such a faith to comfort me, but it's not to be. But I respect those who do and who am I to say that what they believe is wrong? I'm more interested in the values that a person demonstrates in his or her own life than in the faith that inspired them. But when we start drawing the lines at one religious faith, who knows where that line will be drawn in the future? My heritage is with a distinct religious minority so we should particularly object to voters who make such religious tests.

But a politician can't ignore what is a reality even if he wishes it weren't so. So I think Romney is right to address this issue. And perhaps this will help him. Those who are true bigots won't change, but those who might have had a little squishy feeling inside about supporting a Mormon may have their qualms eased. And Romney will certainly gain some publicity from this speech, and if the speech is well done, it will be favorable publicity. And that might help stop his slide in the polls. I like the idea of his couching his speech within the tradition of religious liberty in our nation's history. The fact that he's been reading Jon Meacham's excellent book, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, is a sign that that is the tone he's going to take. We have had a problematic relationship with religious liberty. As one of the first nations to enshrine such liberties in our founding documents, we should be rightly proud of that tradition.

But our actions have not always lived up to those values, most notably in the anti-Catholicism that permeated so much of our politics for so long. I show my students some of the 19th century anti-Catholic cartoons of Thomas Nast so that they can get a flavor for the times. And one of those cartoons depicts the U.S. Capitol being attacked by a crocodile representing Catholics and an armadillo (or, as a reader comments, perhaps it's a snapping turtle) representing Mormons with the caption: "Religious liberty is guaranteed, but can we allow foreign reptiles to crawl all over us?"
Ironically, the Mormon faith is actually a home-grown faith in the United States and not at all foreign. But haven't we come further than this since the 19th century? We finally faced our antagonism to the Catholics, but anti-Mormonism seems to be one religious bigotry that is still widespread. Do we still need to be questioning a person's creed before we'll vote for him? If a person's faith informs his policy choices, then tell us about that and what choices he may or may not make, but, unless you can demonstrate that a particular religion believes in doing harm to others, let's not be at the point where we have to get into doctrinal debates over what adherents to a religion believe in.