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December 15, 2007

The Real Religious Test

Driving into Georgetown last Thursday morning, I happened to catch Mitt Romney's speech on the radio. The conservative reaction to his candidacy never ceases to amaze me, though I suppose it shouldn't. For a plastic candidate, an empty shirt, a man many of my fellow Rethuglicans appear to have written off prematurely, Romney certainly seems to have stirred up quite the little pot of controversy.

I'll tell you a guilty secret: I'm intrigued by the man. Just five or six years ago, the conventional wisdom from most Democrats (and more than a few conservatives) was that Clarence Thomas was something of an oxygen thief. He was widely believed to be Tony Scalia's lapdog - an intellectual cipher who would never make a lasting imprint of his own on the Court.

Few believe that now. Perceptions are funny things, aren't they? People rarely take the time to look below the surface, especially when reality conflicts with their pat little nostrums for digesting that difficult pill called life. It's easier to simply wish what disturbs us away, preferably by citing some controlling authority: Thomas Jefferson's Danbury letter (that Holy of Holies for the secular liberal crowd - when he wrote it, did he have any idea it would come to be considered, by some, more authoritative than the Constitution), the Bible for evangelicals, or for the tiresomely pedantic, the Constitution?

If nothing else, we can thank Romney for poking a stick into the perenially entertaining anthill known as the Vast American Punditocracy. Ironically, Romney's speech and the way various pundits reacted to it poses the real religious test in this race, for their reactions reveal far more about his critics and their biases than about his fitness for office.

I find the preoccupation and paranoia surrounding Romney's Mormon faith, on both sides of the political aisle, both fascinating and repugnant. The reactions to his speech, even from pundits I normally consider sensible, seem exaggerated, slightly paranoid, even verging on the extreme. What is it about matters of faith that brings out the worse angels of our nature, makes otherwise polite people believe it is all right to be uncivil, sets our teeth on edge? What justifies ludicrous pronouncements like Peggy Noonan's statement that religion is the "sole determinative issue" of the Republican race:

What is happening in Iowa is no longer boring but big, and may prove huge.

The Republican race looks--at the moment--to be determined primarily by one thing, the question of religious faith. In my lifetime faith has been a significant issue in presidential politics, but not the sole determinative one. Is that changing? If it is, it is not progress.

Granted, hand wringing and mild hysteria are nothing new for Peggy these days, but even for her this is really jumping the shark. I don't know about Ms. Noonan, but my vote will have more to do with national security, immigration and the economy than questions of religious faith. But then I spend very little of my time longing for a return of the good old days of Ronald Wilson Reagan either, so perhaps than explains my confusion. Be that as it may, it is a strange world when Peggy Noonan and Charles Krauthammer begin playing the same tune on the world's smallest violin. Krauthammer writes:

This campaign is knee-deep in religion, and it's only going to get worse. I'd thought that the limits of professed public piety had already been achieved during the Republican CNN/YouTube debate when some squirrelly looking guy held up a Bible and asked, "Do you believe every word of this book?" -- and not one candidate dared reply: None of your damn business.

Instead, Giuliani, Romney and Huckabee bent a knee and tried appeasement with various interpretations of scriptural literalism. The right answer, the only answer, is that the very question is offensive. The Constitution prohibits any religious test for office. And while that proscribes only government action, the law is also meant to be a teacher.

Krauthammer has just served up the mother of all non-sequiturs. If the Constitutional prohibition against religious tests applies only to government, what Constitutional stricture is violated by a question from a private citizen? None, he admits. Can anyone imagine a candidate answering any other question, no matter how intrusive or irritating, from a voter with a similar response?

Of course they can't. It would be political suicide. Answering such a query with "None of your damned business" is a bit like hiring a Mack truck to run over that pesky chipmunk who keeps leaving nuts all over your driveway: effective, but needlessly brutal. A more restrained response would serve to both inform the audience and chasten the questioner: "My faith (or the lack thereof) would have no bearing on the performance of my public duty to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States." Being asked whether you believe in the Bible by a private citizen who lacks the power to compel you is not, in and of itself, offensive. It is merely irrelevant and (to some candidates, but not to others) annoying. Overreacting to such a question in an emotional fashion isn't much better than pandering. It makes one wonder what the candidate has to hide.

And though I usually agree with Bruce McQuain on most subjects, I find myself at odds with him on the subject of religion. Being afraid to talk about matters of faith, or seeking to banish such discussions from the agora because you find them uncomfortable doesn't strike me as particularly reasonable either:

Religion and faith have a place in every society. But that place isn't in the public political arena. And while I think some zealots go absurdly overboard with their "separation of church and state" opposition, for the most part, it serves us well to keep religion at arm's length and at a personal level when talking about politics. As Krauthammer concludes:

It's two centuries since the passage of the First Amendment and our presidential candidates still cannot distinguish establishment from free exercise.

Unfortunately neither has the media or the electorate.

Why should religion be uniquely singled out from all other subjects as off limits for debate? Is there some Constitutional prohibition in the First Amendment that allows us to discourage, much less forbid, discussion and free debate about matters of faith? I could not agree more with the bolded excerpt above: somewhere along the line Americans have lost the ability to distinguish between the establishment of religion and its free exercise. In this case, however, it is Dr. Krauthammer who seems to have joined the ever growing queue waiting for the clue bus to arrive. Debating religion during a presidential election doth not a state religion establish, nor does it amount to the exercise of religion, no matter how icky it may make Dr. Krauthammer feel. Sometimes a discussion is just a lot of hot air surrounded by people. And contrary to the paranoid delusions of many modern day Americans, the ability to discuss religion in a pluralistic society during a presidential election is a thing to be encouraged, not one to be afraid of; nor one we should seek to suppress. Debate - on any subject - is the hallmark of a vigorous and free society.

That so many of us seem overeager to give up our right to debate and discuss matters of faith freely in public is distressing in the extreme. Since we're on the subject, I don't like listening to people yammer on about abortion.

It's an unpleasant subject, and I find such discussions emotionally draining. Furthermore, since SCOTUS alone has the power to overturn Roe v. Wade, such talk is unduly divisive. Let's just ban all discussions on the grounds that the question has been adjudicated. A woman's right to choose is a personal matter best left to the individual women involved - men really have no business discussing abortion since they have no legal standing in the decision. There: that was easy, wasn't it? No need for debate or discussion! One wonders how many other troublesome subjects can be similarly dealt with, or is it only the discussion of religion which can be swept under the conversational carpet at will without damaging the free and open exchange of ideas?

I find it extremely odd that the unspoken hit on Romney seems to be that he is has no principles, yet somehow he will place his mindless allegiance to his bizarre Mormon faith over his duty to the Constitution. Not discussing religion is exactly what allows egregious dumbassery of this sort to perpetuate itself. Until a truly sophomoric idea is dragged out, blinking and stammering, into the light of day, it is often difficult to see that it never quite got out of its pajamas. Moreover, such charges make very little sense in light of Romney's track record as governor of the liberal state of Massachusetts, where he was called upon to subordinate his personal values to state law and the Massachusetts constitution. If the radically extremist Elders of Utah were truly sending him secret order to usher in the Fourth UberTheoReich, wouldn't Massachusetts be a Mormon controlled state by now? It is a meretricious argument that Christians (or any other people of faith) cannot derive values which affect the conduct of their personal lives from their faith, yet do their duty when they take an oath of office in public life. Conservatives used to admire this sort of restraint. In judges, we call it judicial modesty. We should admire it in all three branches of government. Surely it is not wishy-washiness to recognize that fine line between vigorous assertion of executive power and an extra-Constitutional imposition of one's personal policy preferences which violates the rights of one's fellow citizens? Having the wisdom and restraint to choose between the two is a matter of character and integrity. Some would say that religion reinforces both those traits, though this is not invariably so.

I believe in God, and I personally believe abortion is morally wrong. However, I have no desire to impose a theocratic dictatorship on other Americans and I accept the sovereignty of American law. I accept the authority of the Supreme Court and decisions like Roe v. Wade, though I do not agree with them. My faith informs my personal conduct, but I would have no problem with enforcing a law passed by elected representatives that ran counter to my personal values. It is a stupid and ill-informed argument to contend that faith conflicts with public service; it no more conflicts with such service than atheism does so long as each public servant vows to support and defend the laws of the United States:

"As a young man, Lincoln described what he called America's 'political religion' – the commitment to defend the rule of law and the Constitution. When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God. If I am fortunate to become your President, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.

I agree with Bruce that faith is just another source of the values which inform a candidate's identity and character but I disagree with him that it is beside the point, because though I also find it extremely distasteful that Romney's Mormonism has been raised as an issue in this race, I find the back door whispering campaigns even more disturbing and distasteful. Let it all come out. The voters are quite capable of sorting through the resulting mess.

I think candidates reveal much of their own character by what they choose to run up the flagpole:

Mr. Huckabee, is there something you'd like to say about the heretic Mormon standing to your right?

Mike Huckabee: Well, you know I would never question another person's religion, especially Mormonism, because I don't know anything about that doctrine, even though I have a degree in theology and am a Baptist minister and was once a speaker at the Southern Baptist convention that, ironically, was held in Salt Lake City.

Look, I don't know if Mormons are heretics or not. The sister of the wife of a friend of my first cousin mentioned something about Mormons believing that Jesus and Satan are brothers, but what do I know? I hardly even glanced at that book they handed out at the convention, "Mormonism Unmasked."

I also find it an extremely revealing character exercise to examine what our presidential candidates are willing to defend. Very often we learn a lot about people by what they are willing to stomach in order to get ahead.

And heaven knows, it's heartwarming the way so many of our Rethuglican front-runners have so far managed to avoid the temptation to sling mud at each other. Even more encouraging is the way my fellow thinking conservatives have responded to this outbreak of high-mindedness.

All in all, I must say I've been very enlightened by what I've seen so far.

This is definitely proof that the American people are
tired of divisive, mean spirited partisan attacks
. See? You just have to have faith in your fellow man.

We're all better than this, aren't we? After all, we must be. We're conservatives: the party of principle.

Posted by Cassandra at December 15, 2007 08:03 AM

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Heh!!! This is why I never delete you from my bookmarks.

1. It's just a matter of time. It's inevitable.

2. Quality word smithing articulating the thoughts that are nagging at me.

Have a very Merry Christmas.


Posted by: James at December 15, 2007 09:27 PM


Posted by: Judy at December 15, 2007 10:38 PM

Are you trying to imply that I'm boring and predictable, James? :p


Posted by: Cassandra at December 16, 2007 12:20 AM

It amazes me that so many pundits believe that you can separate your religious beliefs from yourself. You would have to be schizophrenic to pull that off.

I am an evangelical, I can no more stop being one, than I can stop breathing. That does not mean that I cannot subjugate myself to the laws of the land, though it does mean that there are some things that I will not do because of my beliefs.

My loyalties are to God first, family second, and country third, though serving my family in most cases would be the same as serving my country. The pundits that scoff at religious belief, dismiss at their peril, 40 to 50 percent of the population of this country.

I believe that the Mormon religion is wrong, but I can easily support a Mormon candidate because their values align with mine. In our free society, I am more concerned with their values, than I am the exact dictates of their religion.

I have missed your writing very much and like James, would like to wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas

Posted by: Russ at December 16, 2007 02:33 AM

Although I'm none too keen about Mormonism (it's weird in a Scientology kind of way), I suspect that Romney's version of the "faith of his fathers" is analogous to Edward Kennedy's of Catholicism.
(ie: Mostly lip service)

My problem with Mitt is his positions, or more accurately, the elasticity thereof...although if he gets the Party nomination, I'll hold my nose and vote for him, just as I'd do with Giuliani et al.

Anything to keep the clueless Democrite candidate out...

Posted by: camojack at December 16, 2007 03:47 AM

I can only imagine the rush on sales of Depends if today's "learned" pundits were around for the founding of this Country! So many references to God throughout every document the Founding Fathers turned out.

Remember "Better Red Than Dead"? The war cry of the Left in the 60s and 70s? The all out attack on Christianity in the past ten years? Removing God from everything societal? Now we have a media frenzy on candidates' beliefs as if those beliefs will guide doctrine?

*sigh* Oh for a man of character that could profess his ideals as well as Lincoln. The man could turn a phrase while leaving absolutely no room for doubt!

Posted by: Jarheaddad at December 16, 2007 09:06 AM

I think people tend to forget that churches are essentially political entities built around religious convictions. As such, they are "big tent" organizations that must accommodate a spectrum of differing beliefs.

The hit on some people, if they don't go along with every major tenet of a church, is sometimes that they are some kind of apostate. As someone who is a bit of a free thinker myself, I am sometimes not so comfortable with that. I honestly believe God meant us to wrestle with the big questions. I believe he gave us intellect because he wants us to use it.

I don't think faith means a darned thing without its opposite: doubt, or inquiry if you want to put a more positive face on it. I don't think God is threatened by this. It is just that at the end of the day, we do have to be able to surrender our own will to the will of God. What we need to be able to do, however, is to distinguish the will of God from the will of fellow men as expressed through the teachings of a particular Church.

That is why I don't get too excited if someone doesn't toe the line exactly. I just watch them to see if I believe they are generally a person of integrity and if their nonconformance is motivated by principle or for some more selfish reason. It's not always possible to know, but I am not inclined to judge people automatically simply because they don't hew tightly to the teachings of a man-made institution. I'm too much of a nonconformist myself :p

Posted by: Cassandra at December 16, 2007 10:06 AM

In case I wasn't clear, I agree with Russ in general. I am still watching Romney.

In watching the way he makes decisions, I see someone who weighs everything very carefully and takes changing circumstances and how they will affect the downstream consequences into consideration before making a decision. Often, that looks like wishy-washiness, but to me, that is just foresighted. If you want to achieve x and the circumstances are y, you do z. If you still want to achieve x but the circumstances change so that y will not bring about that outcome, you may choose a different course of action. But I think people don't like thinking that hard so they just say, "He said if this happened, he'd do y, but he did b".

Posted by: Cassandra at December 16, 2007 10:14 AM

Don't wanna' think too hard? Like that Kant Attack Ad? Heh! Man, that's way too intellectual for me. Makes my head hurt!

I dunno', I'm big into conspiracy theories. I find myself wondering why the whole religious edict is being played out. Who stands to gain? Who wants whom relegated? First thing that popped into my itty bitty pea brain when the fervor went wild over this. Seems like a well played distraction to me. Someone trying to "brand" the Right as a bunch of mind numbed religious zealots perhaps? You tell me.

Just 'cause I'm paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get me! ;-)

I'll vote for whoever is closer to my own smaller government views. Regardless of religion. Some of the best discussions I ever had were with preachers in adult Sunday school classes back in the day. Not one time did my viewpoints get lost in any form of hardline belief system. Instead we waged some serious discussions based on merit. I never found any type of intolerance in those settings. Quite the opposite actually. But then I think most preachers love a challenge from a pagan! Heh! :-o

Posted by: Jarheaddad at December 16, 2007 11:30 AM

I'll vote for whoever is closer to my own smaller government views. Regardless of religion.


But somehow. a guy who is OK with a national smoking ban and body mass index measuring in public schools ain't doing it for me :p Let me watch my own health and keep the government out of my personal life, thank-you-very-much.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 16, 2007 01:04 PM

Cass, I was impressed with Romney's speech as well. I don't think of it as a "religious" speech though, although that was what I expected to hear. What I heard louder than his religious points was that he loves America and believes in what it stands for.

It's been a while since I've heard a speech declaring such love for this country. I think he has raised the bar. I don't care if people think he's robotic or plastic - these are silly little arguments which are at the same low level as making fun of Hillary's ankles rather than pointing out the vacuity of her positions and her total lack of qualifications for the office of President. I think Romney's a polished public speaker who projects his voice, and perhaps does not project his emotions when speaking to a large group. After watching Bill Clinton emote on cue whenever necessary, I value this restraint in a candidate.

I am looking carefully at him. I will vote for him if he's the nominee. I still remember seeing Giuliani on 9/11, and his refusal of the $10 million check, and his schooling of Ron Paul when he stated in a debate that America deserved 9/11. He knows bull$h!+ when he hears it, and his reflexes are the quickest of the lot to call the bull$h!++er on it. The other candidates follow Rudy's lead, but they seem more calculated, while Rudy seems reflexive.

As to the supposed Religious Right who think we need another Baptist president, I refer them to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. I rest my case. I also point them to Saul, who persecuted Christians until his conversion on the road to Damascus, which was so complete that he changed his name to Paul. King David had his zipper (toga?) problem with Bathsheba, but God found in these flawed humans, something of great use to him. So I can overlook the flaws in some of these promising candidates. Ron Paul is just fargin' nuts, though, 50% of the time. The other 50%, when he's dead on, isn't enough to redeem him.

And I am not discouraged by the current pack of candidates. I see great potential in this group. My first choice is probably Rudy, but with Romney's free-market overhaul of health care in Massachusetts, he would make a good VP tasked with getting affordable insurance available in all the states, without doing Hillarycare. Duncan Hunter would make one kick-a$$ head of Homeland Security. I think we'd have a fence in short order with him at the helm of that agency. We'd probably start profiling, too. Tancredo at INS (or whatever it's called now) - he could focus on illegal immigration and getting the bleeding to stop.

When I look at the Dem side, I see silliness. When I look at the Repub side, I see mostly heavyweights. Yet many people talk about being disillusioned by the weak Republican field. If this crop of candidates isn't better than what's on the other side, what do people want?

Posted by: MathMom at December 16, 2007 09:37 PM

I didn't see it as a religious speech either, but I definitely see people who are expending a tremendous amount of energy trying to paint it - and him - that way (which is why his supporters didn't want him to give it).

No matter what you do with race or religion, there will always be people who want to politicize it. But I don't think the answer lies in avoiding the unpleasant aspects of these topics - I really think you have to go after people who are bigoted (and that is exactly what he is facing here - some people are bigoted, and some are just ignorant, and some have legimate concerns and the answer to all of those things is to get their questions out into the open, not to sweep them under the carpet). Not everyone will get answers because quite frankly not everyone even deserves answers to their questions. For instance, if a question is irrelevant to someone's qualifications, the answer is "That's irrelevant", but it's important to get that information out into the open and educate people rather than letting ignorant rumors spread and do damage. And if they deserve an answer because they have a legitimate concern then they should have the right to keep after the candidate until they get some satisfaction.

I think people are smart enough to sort all this out for themselves, though. That may not always happen right away, but it does happen.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 16, 2007 10:28 PM

Hey Great Site!!! I will bookmark you. Maybe even blogroll you if you keep this up!!!

Not to change the subject but I found the conservative blogger response to the National Review endorsment of Romney interesting.

One comment I read called the NR editors meddlesome yuppies. The heirs of Buckley's thinky rag meddling in conservatism. Sheesh.

Posted by: Pile On at December 18, 2007 07:12 PM

Well I'll be damned, Pile.

I didn't realize that TNR had endorsed Romney. I'm surprised (but pleased) since he has been my own choice since 2004.

The article is linked to my name, for anyone who wishes to read it.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 18, 2007 07:26 PM

Cassandra, you little sneak! I had no idea you were blogging again. The only reason I ended up here today is because I was looking at the Denizens sidebar at the Castle and clicked for old times' sake.

Good to see you back. My world just righted itself. ;)

Posted by: FbL at December 18, 2007 07:45 PM

Shhhh. I am not really here.

You really need to stop drinking so heavily.

Posted by: A figment of your imagination at December 18, 2007 07:52 PM

"You really need to stop drinking so heavily."

A toast!
To courageous convictions and those willing to give them a voice...
To those who guarantee our rights to do so...
To teetotalers!...
and conservative commenter's...
and Bill Buckley...
and Milady's return to her blog...
and the generosity of those who loan their digital torque wrenches in the interest of drought relief...
and #2 pencils...

Posted by: bthun at December 19, 2007 08:07 AM

When I found out that Mitt Romney had not only survived being the chairman of the Winter Olympics committee in Utah, but had fled to MA for some much needed R&R, I thought it odd that
the whole state hadn't converted.

His following MA law has some people's panties in a twist, but I see it as a 'rendering unto Ceasar' kind of thing.

Didn't Shakespeare say something along those lines in Hamlet about being true to yourself?
He followed his beliefs in that regard. The people of MA had chosen what laws they would be bound by, and Romney honored that. And yet, in his personal life, he lives his beliefs. Sometimes you need to see a good sermon instead of hearing it.

Just sayin' and mileage....

PS. Did anyone find his horns yet?

Posted by: Cricket at December 23, 2007 01:42 PM

Sounds like Kathy Parker is a worthy heiress for the loved and lamented Dorothy.

Posted by: Cricket at December 23, 2007 01:48 PM

I'll drink to that.

Posted by: Sly2017 at December 23, 2007 04:59 PM