Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

More reactions to Romney’s speech

I’m going to write something "formal," and would have done so already, were it not for those pesky student papers that need to be graded.

In the meantime, you can read E.J. Dionne, Jr., who likes Romney’s pluralism, but not his claim that freedom requires religion. I agree that not all religion conduces to freedom, but the pluralistic--indeed, pluralistic to an almost universalist fault--Romney can’t say that. At the same time, he probably can’t respond as vigorously to Dionne’s challenge about secularism as someone who isn’t looking for votes could.

Michael Gerson is more generous in his praise, finding merit in Romney’s differences from his older Massachusetts model.

Like Kennedy, Romney affirmed that "no authorities of my church . . . will ever exert influence on presidential decisions." But Romney also argued, "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." Repudiating Kennedy’s exact language, Romney contended that religion is not merely "a private affair." Martin Luther King Jr., Romney reminded us, did not regard religion as a purely personal matter or lay his deepest convictions upon the shelf.

It is one thing to assert, as Kennedy did, that politicians should not take orders from popes and prophets -- that is the institutional separation of church and state. It is another thing to assert, as Kennedy seemed to, that politicians should not take guidance from their own religiously informed conscience -- that is a multiple personality disorder.

His conclusion:

Romney’s speech, however, was an achievement. It had the boldness to argue with Kennedy on key issues and the intellectual seriousness to win some of those arguments. Kennedy’s speech remains a landmark of American rhetoric. But Romney’s deserves to be read beside it.

This is high praise from someone who, whatever your differences with his political views, belongs in the top echelon of presidential speechwriters over the past fifty years.

Charles Krauthammer goes after the proximate cause of Romney’s speech:

The God of the Founders, the God on the coinage, the God for whom Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving day is the ineffable, ecumenical, nonsectarian Providence of the American civil religion whose relation to this blessed land is without appeal to any particular testament or ritual. Every mention of God in every inaugural address in American history refers to the deity in this kind of all-embracing, universal, nondenominational way. (The one exception: William Henry Harrison. He caught cold delivering that inaugural address. Thirty-one days later, he was dead. Draw your own conclusion.) I suspect that neither Jefferson’s Providence nor Washington’s Great Author nor Lincoln’s Almighty would look kindly on the exploitation of religious differences for political gain. It is un-American. It is unfortunate that Romney has had to justify himself in response.

David Brooks was less enthusiastic than most of the social conservatives with whom he spoke.

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.

The second casualty of the faith war is theology itself. In rallying the armies of faith against their supposed enemies, Romney waved away any theological distinctions among them with the brush of his hand. In this calculus, the faithful become a tribe, marked by ethnic pride, a shared sense of victimization and all the other markers of identity politics.

In Romney’s account, faith ends up as wishy-washy as the most New Age-y secularism. In arguing that the faithful are brothers in a common struggle, Romney insisted that all religions share an equal devotion to all good things. Really? Then why not choose the one with the prettiest buildings?

In order to build a voting majority of the faithful, Romney covered over different and difficult conceptions of the Almighty. When he spoke of God yesterday, he spoke of a bland, smiley-faced God who is the author of liberty and the founder of freedom. There was no hint of Lincoln’s God or Reinhold Niebuhr’s God or the religion most people know — the religion that imposes restraints upon on the passions, appetites and sinfulness of human beings. He wants God in the public square, but then insists that theological differences are anodyne and politically irrelevant.

I think that Romney’s implicit civic theology is a little more demanding than Brooks says, although there is some bland smiley-faced stuff in the speech. And I wonder how Romney will respond to the challenge issued by Brooks and, a little less sympathetically, by
this WaPo editorial, to explain his view of the place of people with no religion in America.

Finally, I don’t think he should have to answer this willful misreading of his text by the NYT editorialist.

Update: While I’m at it, here’s Peggy Noonan, a high priestess in the Church of the Speechwriter. Her take on the atheist question:

There was one significant mistake in the speech. I do not know why Romney did not include nonbelievers in his moving portrait of the great American family. We were founded by believing Christians, but soon enough Jeremiah Johnson, and the old proud agnostic mountain men, and the village atheist, and the Brahmin doubter, were there, and they too are part of us, part of this wonderful thing we have. Why did Mr. Romney not do the obvious thing and include them? My guess: It would have been reported, and some idiots would have seen it and been offended that this Romney character likes to laud atheists. And he would have lost the idiot vote.

My feeling is we’ve bowed too far to the idiots. This is true in politics, journalism, and just about everything else.

Discussions - 2 Comments

Joe: It occurs to me that both of these conservatives -- Peggy Noonan and David Brooks -- have become isolated New York City hothouse plants and speak from a very peculiar point of view not shared by most of America beyond the Hudson.

Where Pres. Bush always tips his hat to the "nonbelievers" who can also be good American citizens, Romney avoided that. Religion is not just something Americans are "free from" but something positively good for Americans and for the nation. As we see from Washington's Farewell Address, which you quote in a later post, there can be exceptions but it is interesting how elliptical Washington's language is at this point. The overwhelming general principle was that religious belief is important to sustaining the morality an American needs to practice.

I have nothing against the great city of New York, but the wide open, do your own thing lifestyles of New York City are surely not what Washington and the Founders were thinking of when they spoke about the character of patriots.

Peggy and David need to visit the other 49 states again beyond the "bobo" suburbs that imitate New York morality!

The God of the Founders, the God on the coinage, the God for whom Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving day is the ineffable, ecumenical, nonsectarian Providence of the American civil religion whose relation to this blessed land is without appeal to any particular testament or ritual. Every mention of God in every inaugural address in American history refers to the deity in this kind of all-embracing, universal, nondenominational way.

That is pure liberal revisionism. Krauthammer is a very brilliant man so I know he knows better. Jefferson's and Lincoln's deity was not the God of orthodox Christianity, but that is why they stood out. The baseline understood assumptions of the masses at the time of the formation of this country were quite orthodox.

The conflict was generally between competing orthodox denominations. (Whether Quakers were orthodox is debatable.) In 1776 and 1787 the conflict was not between orthodox and heterodox. It has always been true that there are the heterodox among us. But even the heterodox (the polite ones and not the village troublemakers) generally understood and deferred to the general orthodox consensus. In other words, they kept their objections to themselves. This was especially true in the South and still is to some degree. This “Providence of the American civil religion” was unknown outside certain very small circles in 1776 and 1787. It was not the God of the masses. I suspect if you told Samuel Adams or Patrick Henry at the time that that is what he was worshiping he would have punched you in the mouth.

Also, this is not about the necessity of religion. Religion is not necessary for freedom if the religion involves infant sacrifice. Religion is arguably not conducive to freedom if it is Islam. In America what is at issue is the necessity of Christianity for freedom.

One can believe that a certain amount of tolerance and pluralism is good from a philosophical standpoint and a better way to govern. But it is the elevation of these concepts to the level of unquestioned dogma within conservative circles that bothers me. One can think a certain amount of pluralism is a healthy thing without sacrificing our Christian particularity. And it is a very slippery slope from endorsing absolute tolerance and pluralism to “universalist pablum.”

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