He Don’t Know Jack

I didn’t know John Kennedy. John Kennedy was not a friend of mine. (Give me a break—I was three when he was bumped off. I’m sure, though, if I’d been older we’d have become buds and bummed around Hyannisport.) That being said, my only conclusion after watching Mitt Romney’s speech on religion and politics yesterday morning is that Mitt Romney is no Jack Kennedy.

In his famous speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, Kennedy not only stated that he wouldn’t let his religion rule him:

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote–where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference–and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

he went on to fully reinforce the separation of church and state, arguing that no-one’s religion—or religion in general—should rule government, nor even overtly try and influence it:

“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish–where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source–where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials–and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

Governor Romney started his speech Kennedyeque enough, saying:

“Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.”

Then he began to veer off Kennedy’s message, saying:

“We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They 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’s as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism. They are wrong.”

First off, if secularism is a religion, the so is Fantasy Baseball. Or any system of ideas. Second off, for thirty years now a false dichotomy has been drawn—mostly by religious conservatives—between secularism and religion, arguing that one precludes the other. I would argue it is perfectly complementary to be secular in relationship in some areas—such as the realm of scientific explanation (a doctor needs not be of any religious faith to diagnose strep throat and religious doctrine does not come into play when categorizing a star as a white dwarf)—while embracing religious doctrine and philosophy in one’s moral life, both personal and social. So can be the case with politics, where decisions of the public good may be made without grounding each and every one in the dictates of any particular religious tradition.

Too often our political debate has been skewed by those who claim their ideals are right not because we as a people have agreed to them, not because our constitution defends them, not because democracy has endorsed them, but because Their God has ordained them and any argument to the contrary is not only wrong but is blasphemous and, therefore, wholly without merit. Under such conditions not only is there no possibility for compromise—the corner stone of our social contract—but even civil discourse is precluded. Which, if you’ve noticed, has increasingly become the case over the last three decades of rising religiosity in American political debate.

The consequences of this is as trite as the annual silliness—from both ultra secularists that think secularism in one area of human experience means secularism in all and ultra religious conservatives who, face facts, would not be at all uncomfortable with outright theocracy—over “Merry Christmas.” It is also as serious as people voting for candidates based on being told by their religious leaders that not to do so is to vote against God. Or President’s making policy decisions based on divination.

While I understand the oratorical eloquence of Romney saying:

“Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.”

from a historical point of view I can only say, t’were that it were. Across the vast stretch of history (say from the rise of agriculture eight thousand years ago) human beings managed to find and practice religions quite easily without having to bother with the messy business of freedom. Indeed—without meaning this as a knock against religion as a concept itself—religion and authoritarian states, from the Pharaohs to the Sultans to the Czars, seemed to get along quite well.

The Governor said “Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government.” While freedom may well be a gift from God—and no blasphemy is intended here—God certainly took quite awhile to give it to mankind. Freedom, as we understand it in America, only really emerged in human cultures over the last three hundred years or so. Until quite recently the vast majority of mankind was not politically free. Even today, billions of people do not enjoy the blessings of liberty.

The bottom line is that God gave mankind free will. What we have done with it is our rap, not His. If human societies have endured millennia of dictatorship, it is because we have structured our societies in such a way to allow such oppression to flourish and not because of Divine plan. For us to fully embrace and appreciate the liberty we Americans enjoy today—and effectively share this liberty with others around the world—it is important to fully embrace and appreciate the historical circumstances that produce liberty and not, however eloquently, reduce the occurrence of liberty to a simple act of Divine Grace. God provided for the possibility of human liberty. It is up to us, not Him, to realize that possibility.

I found it odd that Governor Romney went out of his way to link Europe (who American religious conservatives like to point to as the epitome of the abomination of secularism ) to violent Islamic Fundamentalism, even though he tried to qualify the direct comparison:

“I’m not sure that we fully appreciate the profound implications of our tradition of religious liberty. I’ve visited many of the magnificent cathedrals in Europe. They are so inspired, so grand and so empty. Raised up over generations, long ago, so many of the cathedrals now stand as the postcard backdrop to societies just too busy or too ‘enlightened’ to venture inside and kneel in prayer. [Gee, someone should mention that to the throngs of faithful I have always seen on hand at Paris’ Sacre Coeur or Notre Dame.]

Infinitely worse is the other extreme, the creed of conversion by conquest: violent jihad, murder as martyrdom, killing Christians, Jews, and Muslims with equal indifference. These radical Islamists do their preaching not by reason or example, but in the coercion of minds and the shedding of blood. We face no greater danger today than theocratic tyranny, and the boundless suffering these states and groups could inflict if given the chance.”

Okay, he used the qualifier “infinitely worse.” But if he really felt that radical religious zealots were so “infinitely worse” than European secularists, doesn’t that empty the connection he obviously wanted to make between them? What he really wanted to say to his target audience–Christian conservative voters who so narrowly define their concept of what is True religion that they might not vote for a Mormon—was that he was one of them. He, too, agrees that secularism, while maybe not as big a threat as radical fundamentalism, registers on the same threat meter.

Governor Romney’s speech demonstrates that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a politician to successfully walk the fine line between adhering to the doctrine of the separation of church and state and pleasing the very religious conservatives who want to tear down that wall. What Governor Romney really was trying to say was, “While I give lip service to the doctrine of the separation of Church and State, what I really want is for all you religious conservatives who voted for George W. Bush because you hoped he would enforce your religious views on the rest of the country to think I’m Christian—enough for you to vote for me, too. Then I’ll enforce your religious views on the country.”

Governor Romney should have paid more attention to Kennedy’s prophetic words:

“For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew–or a Quaker–or a Unitarian–or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim- -but tomorrow it may be you–until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril…

Finally, 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.”

Governor Romney fails to fully appreciate that the very (ironic) hurdle he faces in getting religious Christian conservatives to vote for him because he is a Mormon flows directly from the very intolerance Kennedy believed flowed inevitably from allowing religion to breech the wall of separation between Church and State. Were he alive today Kennedy would not be at all surprised, I think, that, forty-five years later, given the rising power of organized religion in American politics, a Mormon like Mitt Romney should face challenges similar to his own. He would also, I think, be very disappointed.


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