Two viewpoints on the “Faith in America” speech by Mitt Romney have arisen since its delivery yesterday. Either people believe it to be a masterpiece or unnecessarily divisive. Two columns today make these cases in particularly clear manners. Peggy Noonan and E.J. Dionne write impressively for both cases, with former speechwriter Noonan opting for masterpiece:
Mr. Romney gave the speech Thursday morning. How did he do?
Very, very well. He made himself some history. The words he said will likely have a real and positive impact on his fortunes. The speech’s main and immediate achievement is that foes of his faith will now have to defend their thinking, in public. But what can they say to counter his high-minded arguments? “Mormons have cooties”?
Romney reintroduced himself to a distracted country–Who is that handsome man saying those nice things?–while defending principles we all, actually, hold close, and hold high.
His text was warmly cool. It covered a lot of ground briskly, in less than 25 minutes. His approach was calm, logical, with an emphasis on clarity. It wasn’t blowhardy, and it wasn’t fancy. The only groaner was, “We do not insist on a single strain of religion–rather, we welcome our nation’s symphony of faith.” It is a great tragedy that there is no replacement for that signal phrase of the 1980s, “Gag me with a spoon.”
Dionne agrees that Romney delivered his speech with aplomb, and that it mostly hit the right notes. He argues, however, that Romney’s insistence that freedom requires religion would prove unnecessarily divisive, and also inaccurate:
But then Romney had to go further. “Freedom,” he said, “requires religion, just as religion requires freedom.” And to those who see religion as “merely a private affair with no place in public life,” he said this: “It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism. They are wrong.”
Well. Religion can certainly be conducive to freedom. But does freedom require religion? Is religion always conducive to freedom? Does freedom not also thrive in far more secular societies than our own? Isn’t the better course for our nation to seek solidarity among lovers of liberty, secular as well as religious? After all, as the Princeton scholar Jeffrey Stout has noted, it was a coalition of believers and secularists that sent a communist dictatorship tumbling down in Pope John Paul II’s native Poland.
And Romney’s knock on the “religion of secularism” was pure pandering to the religious right.
Even Noonan questioned Romney’s exclusion of agnostics. She deduces that a mention of atheists and agnostics as part of the American fabric would have lost a few of the evangelicals Romney clearly tried to address in this speech. Noonan closes by asserting that we have pandered enough to “idiots”, and that Romney would have been better advised not to do so.
I understand where Romney drew his inspiration for equating freedom and religion. In part, he drew it from the Declaration of Independence, which talks of inalienable rights “endowed by the Creator”. Without a Creator to make man in His image, one can hardly believe that all men are created equal In pragmatic terms, the diversity of individuals shows a wide variance of productivity and commercial value, which gets expressed in a free-market economic system. However, as souls who are all children of a Creator, we are just as siblings in a family, and should be treated as equals to honor that Creator.
That doesn’t mean that atheists and agnostics don’t recognize equality and individual liberty. The philosophical underpinnings of our Declaration aside, atheists and agnostics have fought and died to defend it and to perpetuate its promise. And while some atheists go out of their way to provoke and insult, so too do some theists. Both Noonan and Dionne have a point in criticizing this emphasis on religious belief in a speech designed to push back against de facto religious tests for office.
However, it seems like a minor point in a speech otherwise well constructed and expertly delivered. A more important theme in this speech was Romney’s insistence that he will not abandon his personal faith for political gain. For a candidate sometimes derided as a flip-flopper, a show of backbone and principle helps build confidence in his ability to fight for other beliefs as well. I think Noonan gets the best of this debate.