Mixing religion and politics in the US

Mitt Romney slices America into two warring camps - the religious and secular.

mitt romney 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
mitt romney 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. - Mitt Romney, College Station, Texas Dec. 6, 2007 To understand the travesty that the Republican Party is making of the issue of religion and politics, it is helpful to imagine an alternative universe. In this universe, Joseph Lieberman is the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, Iran has converted its uranium-enrichment facilities into candy factories, and the Mets are the National League champs (even in my fantasies I can't quite imagine them winning the World Series). As an Orthodox Jew, former Democrat, and avowed centrist, Lieberman is facing pressure to appeal to the Republicans' evangelical Christian base. Among them are many who feel Judaism is a recalcitrant desert "cult" that never accepted the Bible 2.0. So Lieberman gives a major speech on "Faith in America." "There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked," says Leiberman. "What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I don't believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God nor is he the Savior of mankind. And it's not as if I am ambivalent on the point, or agnostic. I mean, I really don't believe it. Not for a second." Of course, Christians would be mortified and offended if he gave such a speech. More to the point, we would be shocked that he felt he had to. The notion should arouse a brief spark of sympathy for Romney. If it is outrageous to ask a Jew the Jesus question, why isn't it outrageous to ask a Mormon? And yet, if Romney was frustrated because he had to answer the question in a major speech, the speech itself only reinforced the worldview that made it necessary. John Kennedy, in his own famous speech on faith, didn't set out to assure Protestants that he and they shared a "common ground" in their belief in Jesus. Instead, he reminded them that America is a country that does not apply religious tests for those seeking public office. As a result, he carved out a place in the Oval Office for Catholics, Jews, and all other non-WASPs. But Romney slices the country into two camps, the religious and the secular. He may sound Kennedyesque when he declares that "while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions." However, he suggests, more than once, that those "moral convictions" are unattainable or unrealizable outside of religious faith. "Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office," says Romney, "is this: Does he share these American values: the equality of humankind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty?" Cue the trumpet fanfare, but tell me this: Why the limiting "person of faith"? Are equality, service, and liberty exclusively religious values? ROMNEY apparently thinks they are. "Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government," he says. But if America's values are gifts from God, one need ask: Whose God? To answer "everyone's" is a squishy, "Kumbaya" relativism that all people of conviction should abhor. The "Judeo-Christian" God? Maybe, but that excludes a host of "religious" Americans - and, in the mind of many Christians, Mormons. Romney's next move is to celebrate "our grand tradition of religious tolerance," but he really means tolerance of religions, including his own. How convenient, as the Church Lady might say. As for secular Americans, or even religious Americans who believe in a strict separation of church and state, Romney pulls up the gangplank. "They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God," he says. "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." If I were a Mormon, I'd avoid phrases like "intent on establishing a new religion." And if I were a Mormon, I think I would have more empathy for those who are wary of a government intent on asserting religion in the public square. Mormonism, despite Romney's protestations, is a radical refashioning of Christianity. Its adherents faced persecution and worse in its early days from those who considered it outside the protections of accepted "faiths." Mormonism's eventual acceptance into the mainstream is not a tribute to America's tolerance for religion, but its tolerance for difference. Even today many Christians do not regard it as a true faith, but a cult - which is why Romney had to reiterate his belief in Jesus. What does a candidate's relationship to Jesus have to do with his qualifications for president? And if, according to a major bloc in one of the two major parties, the answer is "everything," what does that have to say about the position of Jews in the United States? Romney's speech sounds like a bid for tolerance, but it is really a trap for any faith or movement that falls out of his, or his party's, excruciatingly narrow interpretation of America's "foundation of faith." The writer is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.