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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

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Stephen Merino:

December 9, 2007 04:53 PM | Permalink for this comment

Very well said. I felt the exact same way when I read it. What a disappointing speech at a historical moment in recent American politics. He really showed what has become of the Republican Party and just reinforced how invisible liberal religion is to so many people, as well as the myth that nonbelievers are less American than believers. What a shame.


December 9, 2007 06:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

Actually, the name of Islam includes the fundamentalist, conservative, moderate, AND liberal versions, since all of them are part of the Umma (the religious community of believers). As for liberalism, I think that many Catholics, particularly in the so-called Third World, are much more liberal than most Unitarian Universalists.


December 10, 2007 12:34 AM | Permalink for this comment

As Emeril would say, "BAM!" Right? That's what Emeril says, right? But you know what I mean. Thanks for this, and BAM!

Barbara W. Klaser:

December 10, 2007 05:18 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think the speech was careful and "pretty" in that Romney used just the language and said just the things that he knew his audience wanted to hear.

You're right, he didn't cover even Christianity very completely. Of course I didn't expect him to name every religion. That's impossible. But he stayed within the confines of Judeo-Christian-Islamic borderlines. I noticed he didn't mention the women's movement when he spoke of religious influence helping human rights movements succeed, even though some of the first women who fought for women's rights in this country were also some of the first abolitionists. My suspicion is that he left that out in order not to appear to be cozying up to the pro-choice movement. (In fact I notice that conservatives as a whole, even those who are professional women, seem to ignore that there ever was a movement required to allow women to vote or have professions other than teacher or nurse.) He doesn't mention any number of other beliefs, including those beliefs with no name that are unique to the individual.

I found his mention of Islamic exremism toubling because it left out other forms of extremism, including religious extremism. All he needed to do was condemn religious belief that attempts to squash other human rights including others' religious freedom. The Oklahoma City bombing would then fall under the blanket of his condemnation of extremism.

He left me wondering whether he's aware that "under God" wasn't added to the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954. Perhaps he knew and carefully talked around that fact as well.

I hope we can elect a president who isn't afraid of owning up to all the facts of our history rather than selecting those he like, who defends everyone's right to religion or no religion as a matter of course, and who understands there's more to the American spiritual fabric than Judeo-Christian-Islamic beliefs, one who will acknowledge that we have many good, moral citizens who adhere to no particular belief.


December 11, 2007 11:08 AM | Permalink for this comment

The Weekly Standard offers this parody of the "Rainbow of Faiths" section in Romney's speech. (Via Ezra Klein.)

Stephen A.:

December 13, 2007 08:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

Romney didn't mention pagans, Wiccans and atheists for a very good reason. He was narrowly aiming his POLITICAL speech at conservative Christians in Iowa, trying to convince them that he can be trusted with the presidency, and perhaps also that he can be trusted with the label "Christian."

Given that he is himself a member of a minority religion that has been persecuted, I expect he may be very sympathetic to the plight of those persecuted on account of their faith. In fact, the Mormon church says, in their Articles of Faith, (#11) that they respect the right of all people to worship as they please.

I'd also say that I doubt the radical secularism and anti-religion bigotry of which he condemned was a blanket attack on all minority faiths, or dare I say it, even all liberal faiths. If the idea that all religion must be kept inside one's home, and no mention of faith must ever be allowed to be spoken in public, then I have to wonder how poorly minority faiths would fare in *that* environment. If Christianity is forced INDOORS, do you honestly believe pagans, Wiccans or even UUers will be allowed to flaunt their religions OUTDOORS?

Think: "They came for the Christians, but I wasn't a Christian..."


December 14, 2007 08:14 AM | Permalink for this comment

Stephen A., the entire Republican Party should be ashamed that it has in effect a religious test for the nomination that requires candidates to appeal to conservative Protestant theological orthodoxy. Although I'd love to believe that Romney respects other religious minorities and believes in a secular government for a pluralistic nation, he chose not to affirm the rights of minority religions other than his own.

I have no idea how Romney's political gamble will play out. I don't want to see him elected because I disagree with his politics and resent the way he neglected his office while governor. (I oppose Giuliani more, however.)

It may be true that Romney's speech will be remembered as a key moment in the mainstreaming of Mormonism, but the way Romney linked Mormonism to conservative traditionalist religion betrays part of the Mormon heritage -- its radicalism, its innovativeness, its unorthodoxy, its stark countercultural roots -- and downplays whatever sympathy Mormons might have for other minority religions.

I suspect that Romney is personally more moderate than his hard-right campaign -- that he is, essentially, a big business candidate. But he's never courageous: He hardly challenged the Evangelical political machine and instead played to their bigotry against every non-traditionalist form of religion in America.

Romney does not get a pass for this.

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