I find myself agreeing with David Brooks, who at last count hadn’t written anything that made sense since Bobos in Paradise. But he sure has Mitt Romney’s number:
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.
Romney’s job yesterday was to unite social conservatives behind him. If he succeeded, he did it in two ways. He asked people to rally around the best traditions of America’s civic religion. He also asked people to submerge their religious convictions for the sake of solidarity in a culture war without end.
One especially slimy passage from Romney’s speech escaped Brooks’s attention:
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. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.
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.
So it’s wrong to ask a candidate about his religious beliefs, because that would constitute a “religious test.” But it’s fine to pit believers against unbelievers, and if a candidate happens to share a relgious belief that will help him appeal to the majority faction in his party, it’s fine for him to parade that belief. Rabbi Joshua, whom Mitt Romney believes to be the Son of God and the Savior of Mankind, had a phrase for that sort of public religiosity. He called it praying on the streetcorners, to be seen of men, and instructed his followers to behave otherwise.
It says bad things about the direction in which the country has been going that Romney’s Mormonism is a campaign issue against him, as his father’s was not in 1968. But though I weep for the country, I’m not going to waste anymore sympathy on Romney. Anything he gets, he’s got coming to him. With the measure that he uses, may it be measured out to him: pressed down, shaken together, and running over.
Update It’s not just unbelievers Romney has no use for; apparently no non-monotheists need apply.