As John F. Kennedy faced questions regarding his Catholic religion while running for president in 1960, so Mitt Romney faces questions regarding his Mormon religion today. Kennedy dispelled those questions for reasonable people with his "Catholic speech." Yesterday, Mitt Romney gave his own long-ballyhooed "Mormon speech." Two things stand out: Romney's pandering to the religious right and his marginalization of nonbelievers.
First, compare this bit from John F. Kennedy's speech:
...So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.
I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.
...And neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test — even by indirection — for it.
with this from Romney's:
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.
Kennedy's view -- essentially that "My personal religious beliefs are none of your business" -- will no longer hold up in an American election. Because there is a basic "religious test" that the religious right wants to impose on presidential candidates: "Are you (our kind of) Christian?" That's the real question Romney is answering, and by answering, legitimizing "by indirection."
This is what Kennedy said about separation of church and state:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, ...where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference....
I believe in an America... where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials....
Romney doesn't agree:
We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. 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.
We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from "the God who gave us liberty."
So separation of church and state is no longer "absolute." I guess what Romney is saying is that church and state should be separate, except when it shouldn't be. Makes perfect sense. At least, it does to the religious-right voters he panders to. Because it's actually pretty easy to tell the difference between the "should" and "shouldn't" cases in their minds: promotes (evangelical Protestant) Christianity = "should"; promotes some other religion = "shouldn't." You won't find them protesting or hiring lawyers to bring, say, paganism or Islam into public life. Quite the reverse.
Now, what about the atheist part? Well, listen to what Romney says:
There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us. If so, they are at odds with the nation's founders....
Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. ...Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.
It's important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter, on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. 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.
I think you can see where this is going:
Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: Does he share these American values — the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another and a steadfast commitment to liberty?
That's only a question for a "person of faith"? Why not for a person of no faith, or for a doubter, a questioner, a seeker?
They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common. They're the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united.
They're not unique to religious people either. Obviously. They're the common inheritance of all Americans.
We believe that every single human being is a child of God — we're all part of the human family. The conviction of the inherent and inalienable worth of every life is still the most revolutionary political proposition ever advanced. John Adams put it that we are "thrown into the world all equal and alike."
Take out the "child of God" part, and again, this is something pretty much every American believes. Romney is marginalizing nonbelievers, implicitly separating "we, the moral believers" from "they, the immoral unbelievers." Again, the contrast with Kennedy's words is striking:
Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; ...where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.
That is not Romney's vision. If it were, he would not be pandering to the evangelical bloc, nor would he speak of nonbelievers with disdain, nor would he be dividing them from believers. His speech is indicative of a sad degradation of our public discourse.