Sunday, December 9, 2007
Romney's pluralism tolerates all conservative religions.
In his much-discussed speech in Texas this week, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tried to shrink the big tent of American religious toleration even as he tried to make sure that Mormonism finds a place inside it. Many commentators have noted how Romney's speech endorsed a reactionary conflict between "people of faith" and "secularism" — conservative columnist David Brooks is especially good on this point — but I haven't yet seen anyone point to the way Romney subtly excluded a lot of people who aren't "seculars."
Consider, for example, this passage in the speech:
There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes President he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.
I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims. As I travel across the country and see our towns and cities, I am always moved by the many houses of worship with their steeples, all pointing to heaven, reminding us of the source of life's blessings.
It's a pity Romney hasn't encountered more faiths. Rhetorically, the speech offers this list of the qualities he admires about other faiths as a personal statement about things Romney wishes Mormonism had, too, but it's more than that. The passage also fleshes out Romney's version of religious pluralism (or, to be generous, the version of religious pluralism he thinks he can affirm in a Republican primary). And what a narrow, conservative pluralism it is.
He lists the religions he has "come to know," the religions he believes draw their people "closer to God": ceremonial Catholicism, personalistic Evangelicalism, tender-hearted Pentecostalism, Lutheran "confident independence," Jewish traditionalism, and pious Islam. What's missing? I don't think it's accidental, although it may not have been deeply considered, that virtually no aspect of mainline Protestantism appears on this list; that almost no religious tradition's commitment to the social good appears on this list (unless you count abolition, the civil rights movement, and the antiabortion movement); that no liberal or progressive or reform tradition appears on this list; that no religion with roots in Asia or in pre-colonial America appears on this list; that no new religious traditions (apart, of course, from Mormonism) appears on this list. When Romney praises religious pluralism, only the traditionalist branches of ancient (or GOP-dominated) monotheistic faiths make the cut.
What he admires about other religions — and, by extension, what he seems to be saying deserves toleration — is conservative traditionalism. But millions of Americans, and not simply atheists and "seculars," are excluded by this definition. Romney isn't defending religious pluralism; he's defending conservatism.
What else might he have admired about America's religious communities? How about (among many other things) the tradition of charitable and social justice work of Catholic religious orders and lay volunteers, the Episcopalians' glorification of God through beauty and education, the conscientious peacemaking of the Anabaptists and Quakers, the teaching zeal of the Presbyterians, the modernizing impulse of Reform Judaism that brought Jews into the mainstream, the independence of mind and adaptability of the Unitarian Universalists, the mindfulness of the Buddhists, the visual parables of the Eastern Orthodox and the Hindus, the veneration of the land by its native peoples, and the inventiveness of new religious movements?
And why not acknowledge that many people are upright, honorable, and moral without subscribing to any creed or system of religion? I pity Romney if he has never had the good fortune to meet a trustworthy and ethical atheist.
By trying to define "faith" as conservative traditionalism and "pluralism" as a name for monotheistic traditionalism, Romney misrepresented the true diversity of American religion, explicitly dismissed Americans who don't identify with a religious tradition, and painted the traditions he did mention in a way that celebrates their most traditionalist wings and ignores almost all of their visions for the commonweal. What a disappointment.
Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 9 December 2007 at 4:13 PM