Joe Loconte is a commentator on religion for National Public Radio and will join the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University as a senior fellow in January 2008.
WASHINGTON, DC — Skeptics at home and abroad are carping about Mitt Romney’s first major speech on religion. They should stop huffing and hyperventilating long enough to actually read it—a text that ranks as the most sober, sane, and historically informed view of religion and American democracy delivered thus far in the presidential campaign.
Many have tried to coax Mr. Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, to explain and defend his Mormon beliefs. Yesterday he declined the invitation. “To do so would enable the very religious test the Founders prohibited in the Constitution,” he said. “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.”
That welcome answer—the American solution to the question of religion and government—goes to heart of the American Creed. The driving aim of the separation of church and state is not to quarantine religion from public life, but to protect religious liberty for people of all faiths, or of no faith. Mr. Romney’s answer is anchored in the concepts of equality and the inalienable rights of conscience. It is established by the original text of the Constitution, in Article VI (“no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust”) and by the lead-off amendment to that text, the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”).
Mr. Romney’s answer is also long overdue. For years now most conservatives have kept their mouths shut as politicians or presidential advisors have played the religion card for Christian audiences—a disgraceful game I’ve witnessed up close. It has inflicted untold damage to the public understanding of America’s democratic heritage. In the recent YouTube campaign debate, for example, the Republican candidates were asked if they viewed the Bible as the word of God. Predictably, and pathetically, none of them appealed to this bedrock political doctrine: no religious test for public office.
Mr. Romney did find it necessary to share one of his theological convictions: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the savior of mankind.” Given the ambiguities of Mormonism on this issue, it would be better left unsaid. Nevertheless, his speech could begin to change the overall conversation. In a manner that secular voices here and in Europe find baffling, he spoke warmly of America’s religious diversity:
“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.”
Unlike John Kennedy’s religion speech in which he crudely disavowed any link between his Catholic faith and his politics, Mr. Romney affirmed the important work of religion in supporting democratic ideals and inspiring political reform. “Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself,” he said, “no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.”
The candidate could be faulted for not explicitly affirming the welcome role that non-believers play in American public life. Yet only the dour atheism of critics such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens could doubt the self-evident truth of his basic argument. Indeed, today’s “movements of conscience”—on issues such as genocide in Sudan, human trafficking, global AIDS—are likewise driven by religious believers. Mr. Romney is right, and wise, to contrast this vision of faith and society with the derisive, dreary, and demoralized alternative touted by many liberals and the militant secular left.
Mr. Romney closed his speech by contrasting the strength and decency of America’s political culture to that of two competing alternatives. One is the vision of violent jihad, “the creed of conversion by conquest” and “murder as martyrdom”—what he calls one of the greatest dangers faced by civilized nations. There can be little doubt that Islamic theocratic states are breeding grounds for this brand of extremism.
The other choice is the path taken by much of Europe, the roadway into doubt and indifference about God and the deep questions of human existence. The magnificent cathedrals of Europe, Mr. Romney said, do not disguise the fact that they serve as “the postcard backdrop to societies just too busy or too ‘enlightened’ to venture inside and kneel in prayer.” Such criticism will sting our European friends, and need not have been made. But Mr. Romney is surely right to blame the establishment of state religions—and the coercion and corruption they instigate—as a chief cause of religion’s decline and rejection in Europe.
It is, in fact, a judgment that one of Europe’s greatest political minds likely would applaud. “Truth…is not taught by laws, nor has she any need of force to procure her entrance into the minds of men,” wrote John Locke in A Letter Concerning Toleration. “But if truth makes not her way into the understanding by her own light, she will be but the weaker for any borrowed force that violence can add to her.”
The light of religious truth, to put it gently, does not always and everywhere burn brightly in these United States. Mr. Romney’s speech, however, may make certain truths a little less obscure as this presidential campaign continues.