Does Romney’s America Include Non-Believers?
David Brooks has a sober and thought-provoking take on Mitt Romney’s “Mormon speech,” simultaneously praising its intricate weaving of philosophy and worrying that his method of arguing for inclusion of Mormons in the political sphere was at the cost of excluding non-believers.
When this country was founded, James Madison envisioned a noisy public square with different religious denominations arguing, competing and balancing each other’s passions. But now the landscape of religious life has changed. Now its most prominent feature is the supposed war between the faithful and the faithless. Mitt Romney didn’t start this war, but speeches like his both exploit and solidify this divide in people’s minds. The supposed war between the faithful and the faithless has exacted casualties.
The first casualty is the national community. Romney described a community yesterday. Observant Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Jews and Muslims are inside that community. The nonobservant are not. There was not even a perfunctory sentence showing respect for the nonreligious. I’m assuming that Romney left that out in order to generate howls of outrage in the liberal press.
The second casualty of the faith war is theology itself. In rallying the armies of faith against their supposed enemies, Romney waved away any theological distinctions among them with the brush of his hand. In this calculus, the faithful become a tribe, marked by ethnic pride, a shared sense of victimization and all the other markers of identity politics.
In Romney’s account, faith ends up as wishy-washy as the most New Age-y secularism. In arguing that the faithful are brothers in a common struggle, Romney insisted that all religions share an equal devotion to all good things. Really? Then why not choose the one with the prettiest buildings?
Indeed. The problem with the secularization of religion is that it winds up being insufficiently secular and insufficiently religious.
Brooks is also right that non-believers are more excluded from our process than even aggrieved religious groups like Mormons and Muslims. As noted here months ago, an atheist would have a much harder time getting elected president than a homosexual, black, or Hispanic — let alone a Mormon.
An exception is Red Stater Hunter Baker (who doesn’t appear to have read Brooks’ column) takes the opposite view, though: “The United States has traditionally been a nation that recognizes freedom must be paired with religion and morality if it is to persevere in political society. Mitt said it. Libertarians need to hear it. So do secularists.”
While there’s not much question that the Protestant Reformation played a role in the rise of democratic governance in the West, it’s far from clear that religion is necessary for freedom. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of a free theocracy.
The Washington Post weighing in on the question this morning with an editorial entitled, “No Freedom Without Religion? There’s a gap in Mitt Romney’s admirable call for tolerance.”
Where Mr. Romney most fell short, though, was in his failure to recognize that America is composed of citizens not only of different faiths but of no faith at all and that the genius of America is to treat them all with equal dignity. “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom,” Mr. Romney said. But societies can be both secular and free. The magnificent cathedrals of Europe may be empty, as Mr. Romney said, but the democracies of Europe are thriving.
“Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government,” Mr. Romney said. But not all Americans acknowledge that, and those who do not may be no less committed to the liberty that is the American ideal.
The estimable John O’Sullivan, though, thinks Brooks and others are reading something into Romney’s message that was not there.
The religious liberty celebrated by Romney plainly entails the liberty to be non-religious. What Romney is opposing in those sections of the speech that seem to concern the culture wars is an obligation to be non-religious in the public square.
David’s arguments seems to be that if religious people were to unite against secularists to fight the their joint battles more effectively in the culture war, that would be an aggressive, divisive, and regrettable act. But that argument itself rests on the unstated assumption that the culture wars would stop if religious people stopped fighting them. In fact the culture wars began because the Left employed the courts to change America on everything from abortion to school prayer to gay marriage. This has not stopped. The obligation to be non-religious in the public square, though a very recent invention of liberal philosophers, is treated seriously in legal arguments and court decisions today.
So why shouldn’t religious people, while affirming the right to be non-religious, organize to defend their joint beliefs and interests in the way deplored by David?
No reason at all, of course. Indeed, while I would prefer that public policy decisions be decided on purely secular grounds, religious convictions are ultimately no less legitimate motivation for policy preferences that economic interest, party loyalty, or “we’ve always done it this way.”
It seems inevitable, though, that the overwhelming majority who are religious will mount their fight to protect their cultural values (even those shared by many secularists) on Us vs. Them grounds.
Further, as Eric Klee reports, Romney is thus far refusing to distance himself from the Brooksean interpretation.
A spokesman for the Mitt Romney campaign is thus far refusing to say whether Romney sees any positive role in America for atheists and other non-believers, after Election Central inquired about the topic yesterday.
It’s a sign that Romney may be seeking to submerge evangelical distaste for Mormonism by uniting the two groups together in a wider culture war. Romney’s speech has come under some criticism, even from conservatives like David Brooks and Ramesh Ponnuru, for positively mentioning many prominent religions but failing to include anything positive about atheists and agnostics.
Indeed, the only mentions of non-believers were very much negative. “It is as if they’re intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism. They’re wrong,” Romney said, being met by applause from the audience.
Romney’s strategy, if indeed it was intentional, is a politically sound one. The numbers favor pandering to the religious to the exclusion of non-believers; that’s especially so in the Republican primaries. It’s not the way to national unity but that’s generally well behind winning votes in a politician’s calculus.