Mitt Romney's Religion Speech

06 December 2007

Mitt Romney is set to give a speech about his Mormon religion, and has released excerpts to the press. Here is one sample:

"Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people."

It seems strange to see Romney invoke the civil rights movement here to make an argument for the inherent goodness of religious solidarity. This is somewhat besides his point (which appears to be carefully worded), but Romney's Mormon religion has a somewhat checkered history with regards to the civil rights movement.

From the April 13, 1959 edition of Time magazine:
Whatever they may do or leave undone about their Negro brethren, most U.S. churches hold that all men are equal before God. One notable exception: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Book of Mormon teaches that the colored races are descendants of the evil children of Laman and Lemuel, who impiously warred against the good children of Nephi and received their pigmented skin as punishment. Last week a Utah State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights drew on this Mormon scripture in a scathing report on the state of the tiny nonwhite minority in Utah.

This is what Brigham Young taught his followers:
"Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so." (Journal of Discourses, Vol.10, p.109)
Additionally, people of the African race were not permitted into the priesthood until 1978. From the June 19, 1978 edition of Time magazine:
It was a historic moment for Mormons, who believe that the prohibition against blacks as priests goes back as far as the sons of Adam. It is taught in the Book of Abraham, one of three scriptures revealed to Prophet Joseph Smith and accepted as holy writ only by Mormons. According to the key verse, descendants of Cain (identified elsewhere in Mormon scripture as blacks) are "cursed as pertaining to the priesthood." Because of this the racial bar could only be lifted by a "revelation" direct from God. The church leaders said they had spent many hours in the Upper Room of the Salt Lake City Temple. Eventually God "confirmed that the long-promised day has come."

Of course, the church has since come around, and every Mormon I've ever met has been super-nice, and not at all racist in any perceivable way. It's also worth noting that Romney's father marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement. I don't intend on casting aspersions on the Mormon people collectively. But I think that it's important to point out that it was not exactly a leading light in the move for equality, and that it finally came around despite traditional church doctrine.

Nor was Jerry Falwell quite on board with the civil rights movement. In fact, he called it the "civil wrongs" movement.

Romney's point in the quote I cited at the beginning appears to be merely that social justice causes need to get religious people on board in order to succeed. I just wanted to point out that sometimes, they also have to run counter to those religious establishments, doctrines, and leaders who resist and retard progress.

Likewise, the Christian bible has passages sanctioning slavery, ordering the execution of homosexuals, and making parental disobedience a death-penalty offense. Nonetheless, these very specific and very absurd passages (like the very absurd Mormon passages relating to black people) have been superseded by vague "love your neighbor" passages. That is a very good thing (for everyone but the biblical literalists). However, "love your neighbor" is not a specifically religious concept.

I think that this is a very important distinction to draw. That's why it bothers me when people like Mitt Romney and Dinesh D'Souza try to claim religion as the exclusive or primary source of these values. That's also why it bothers me so much when Mitt Romney draws his moral circle specifically to exclude the non-religious, as he did here: "One of the great things about this land is that we have people of different faiths and different religions, but we need to have a person of faith lead the country."

The "love your neighbor rule" of ethics is one shared by all of us, religious and non-religious alike. It is this that has overridden the awful, discriminatory and wrong practices of the past (even those codified in Church doctrine).

UPDATE: The speech has been made. It is available here.

I disagree very much with this:
"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."
Seriously. As a non-religious person, I find it highly absurd (and offensive) that Mitt Romney thinks my beliefs are incompatible with freedom.

Also, is anybody else bothered by the fact that this Mitt Romney quote:
"A person should not be elected because of his faith"
DIRECTLY contradicts this Mitt Romney quote?
"One of the great things about this land is that we have people of different faiths and different religions, but we need to have a person of faith lead the country."
Because they undoubtedly say exactly opposite things. They are 100% in conflict with each other. He talks big about religious tolerance when it comes to Mormonism, but doesn't seem to apply the same standard to atheism and agnosticism.

I also don't care for this:
I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God.
Seriously? Every faith? Even the Westboro Baptist Church, the Raelians, and Heaven's Gate? Because some faiths are seriously crazy.

Romney also quotes the passage I used to kick off this blog:
It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter – on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.
There's more inanity to the speech (much more), but I'll leave it here, at the same place I started.

UPDATE II: Here is Chris Matthews's reaction:
CHRIS MATTHEWS: I have to say if he wins the presidency, it started here . . . For the first time in this campaign, and it's been a long campaign, I heard greatness this morning.
No surprises here. According to Matthews, "He has the perfect chin, the perfect hair, he looks right."

UPDATE III: Andrew Sullivan responds here:
By insisting on faith - any faith - as the proper criterion for public office, Romney draws the line, oh-so-conveniently, so as to include Mormonism but exclude atheism and agnosticism. And so he side-steps the critical issue in the debates over religion in public life: what if there is no unifying faith for a nation? What if faith itself cannot unify a nation - and, in fact, can divide it more deeply than any other subject? That is our reality. An intelligent and wise conservative would try to find a path to a common discourse that does not rest on religious foundations.

The second flaw is that he simply cannot elide the profound theological differences between the LDS church and mainstream Christianity. Since I'm a secularist - a Christian secularist - this doesn't make a difference to me. But if you are appealing to religious people, especially fundamentalists, on the basis of faith, you cannot logically then ask them to ignore the content of the faith. The religious right have tried to do this with the absurd neologism, the "Judeo-Christian tradition," as if the truth-claims of Christianity and Judaism are not, at bottom, contradictory. But the "Mormon-Judeo-Christian tradition" is a step too far even for those who have almost no principles in using religion for political purposes.

UPDATE IV: Jonathan Rowe reacts here:
I agree with Andrew Sullivan. The biggest problem I have with his speech is Romney seems to try and form an alliance with other religious conservatives, mainly orthodox Christians — find common ground between them — and gang up on secularists, atheists, and agnostics, in an us versus them mentality. America belongs to everyone, not just religious folks.
UPDATE V: Rev. Barry Lynn's reaction:

“I think it is telling that Romney quoted John Adams instead of Thomas Jefferson or James Madison,” Lynn continued. “Jefferson and Madison are the towering figures who gave us religious liberty and church-state separation.

“I was also disappointed that Romney doesn’t seem to recognize that many Americans are non-believers,” Lynn continued. “Polls repeatedly show that millions of people have chosen to follow no spiritual path at all. They’re good Americans too, and Romney ought to have recognized that fact.

UPDATE VI: Mitt Romney frames the separation of church and state like this: "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 is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America - the religion of secularism. They are wrong." Don Byrd points out the absurdity of this straw-man argument:
We are a nation full of religious individuals and communities, but not a religious nation. Church-state separation is necessary to preserve religious freedom - both the freedom to believe and the equally important freedom not to believe. It is not an effort to remove God or religion, nor to "separate us from God." It is simply the requirement that agents of government refrain - in their official capacity - from promoting or preferring, criticizing or harassing religious believers and non-believers. When the official institutions of the state are free of the enactment of religion, then and only then can the business of religious liberty really begin.

The kind of fear-mongering we see from candidates today - contorting the institutional separation of church and state into a supposedly serious threat to the place of God in our lives - preys on many Americans' most solemnly held beliefs. It is the height of cynicism and exploitation.

UPDATE VII:'s Hugh Hewitt thinks that the speech was "simply magnificent, and anyone who denies it is not to be trusted as an analyst."

UPDATE VIII: Constitutional law professor Jack Balkin's analysis:
Although this may lose any remaining respect Hugh has for my opinions, I beg to differ. The speech is chock full of (how can I put this delicately?) rhetorical tensions. On the one hand, "[A] presidential candidate [should not have to] describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution." On the other hand, two paragraphs later Romney emphasizes that "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind." Having announced that it would be wrong to go into details about his beliefs, why does he emphasize that one single issue, an issue which separates his beliefs from many religions, but says nothing that might separate him from conservative Christians? Why does he rush to emphasize Jesus's divinity but not other aspects of Mormonism that are just as important and perhaps more distinctive? The answer is that despite his statements to the contrary, he knows there is a religious test for public office, and the people grading the exams are the Republican base.

Again, on the one hand, "A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith." On the other hand, "[f]reedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom," and "We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. . . .Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.'" These remarks strongly identify Americans and Americanism with belief in God. Romney does nothing to suggest otherwise. Indeed, his central point is that the religious share "a common creed of moral convictions." Note carefully his list of religions that form this common creed, all Western and monotheist
It is not a call for religious tolerance, unless tolerance means scrambling to identify yourself with majority religions and lumping together every other belief system as alien to American values and outside the "common creed of moral convictions" that all true Americans share.
UPDATE IX: David Brooks reacts:

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.

UPDATE X: The National Review's Ranesh Ponnuru:
It would have been nice if Romney, while making room for people of all faiths in this country, could have also made some room for people with none.
UPDATE XI: Pat Buchanan has a predictably awful take on this speech:
He moved up to that higher common ground on which we all can stand. The ground on which all Americans stand is the dignity of the individual as a child of God.
No. That's not common ground at all. It leaves out millions of Americans who believe no such thing. All he's doing is broadening the circle of acceptance to include Mormons (notice how he says he won't explain Church doctrine, then goes on to conveniently mention just the Mormon doctrine that overlaps with that of traditional Christians) and specifically exclude nonbelievers.

UPDATE XII: Well maybe George Romney didn't quite march with Martin Luther King, Jr. after all:

A defensive Romney was peppered with questions today on exactly what he meant when he said -- most recently on Meet the Press -- that he "saw" his father march with Martin Luther King Jr. Recent articles have indicated that his father, the late Michigan Gov. George Romney, didn't march with the civil-rights leader.

Admitting that he didn't see the march with his own eyes, he said, "I 'saw' him in the figurative sense."

"The reference of seeing my father lead in civil rights," he said, "and seeing my father march with Martin Luther King is in the sense of this figurative awareness of and recognition of his leadership."

"I've tried to be as accurate as I can be," he continued, smiling firmly. "If you look at the literature or look at the dictionary, the term 'saw' includes being aware of -- in the sense I've described."

The questioning did not relent. "I'm an English literature major," he insisted at one point. "When we say I saw the Patriots win the World Series, it doesn't necessarily mean you were there." (He meant the Super Bowl, of course.)

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