Friday, December 07, 2007

And Now...My Take

So, on Wednesday, I tried to come up with something I would say if I were in Romney's shoes. Which is an impossibility, I know--but still, it was an interesting thought experiment. Now, with Romney's speech more than 24 hours in the past, and everyone having already said their piece and moved on, let me belatedly say what I--a socially conservative, economically progressive, generally left-voting Mormon political philosopher--think about Romney actually said.

First, there was his comment--following immediately after his thoughtful reference to John Adams's completely accurate words about the U.S. Constitution presuming a "moral and religious people"--that "freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom." But "freedom" in such a general sense wasn't what Adams was talking about; he was talking about the particular sort of classical republican assumptions which underlie our constitutional order. Now, if I was to think that Romney was in some way or another aspiring to resurrect in a serious way those assumptions about civic virtue, I'd be fascinated, but since he also doesn't seem at all interested in pursuing classical republican social and economic reforms (regarding work, suffrage, land ownership, and so forth), I think we can safely assume that striving to resurrect an 18th-century, primarily agrarian, basically Jeffersonian America is an aspiration that at most dwells in his rhetoric, rather than his actual plans for the country. This leaves the likely alternative that Romney means this sentence to be a purely anodyne bit of patriotic piety--either that, or as a bone thrown to the theoconservatives. There's actually something to be said for the latter, though admittedly slight, possibility: the only kind of "freedom" that truly requires religion is that kind of positive, covenanted, Christian freedom that John Winthrop and other Puritans spoke of; namely, "moral liberty," or the liberty to do good. This Puritan inheritance echoed a long ways down the years in American thought and speech (greatly influencing different varieties of republicanism along the way), and it would be, well, interesting to see a presidential candidate who rejected the individualistic "natural liberty" that has been long accepted as basic to American pluralism in favor of a sectarian natural law. But, as I've noted before, even the theocons seem in some sense implicated in the liberal world, wanting not so much to contest modernity as to moralize and baptize it pretty much as it is, and that's a morass that I'd rather not assume to lay on Romney's shoulders.

Next, there was his reference to John F. Kennedy and his big speech on religion nearly 50 years ago. He tied himself to JFK's speech more explicitly than I either expected him to or thought he needed to. I didn't expect him to go in that direction because to overplay the supposedly clear and easy way to distinguish between church and state in America (which JFK did, presenting religious faith as an incidental thing, whereas the duties of state were presented as central to both his responsibilities as a citizen and the office he was aspiring to) would presumably alienate at least some of the Christian right that he is appealing to; but then again, perhaps the fact that he can so blithely proclaim that "church affairs" and "affairs of the nation" absolutely do not overlap can simply be taken as another bit of evidence that the American people, including all except a handful of radically committed Christian conservatives, really are (philosophical) liberals after all. And I didn't think he needed to go in that direction because I would like to believe that this is an opportunity for someone to talk about the ways in which religion--and not just the "political religion" of Lincoln (which really was just a secular reverence for the laws of the land, and not something that can or should be made analogous to public religious piety), but real sectarian Christian religion--has an inherently contentious but all the same productive role to play in the America's pluralistic civil order.

What do I mean by that? I mean that, while I seriously doubt that anything like a majority of the immediate participants in the founding actually believed what they were doing was fulfilling any kind sectarian Christian theology, I think that a proper understanding of what American-style secularism is all about has to take into consideration that the 18th and 19th-century growth of democracy was both populism and religious, and that the "civic religion" which scholars suggest was thoroughly in place by the mid-19th century, and remained in place for the next century as well, was the result of (and continued to be the result of) a turbulent exchange between and amongst different sectarian Christian faiths. (My friend Nate Oman talks a little bit about this in the context of Romney's speech here.) But that turbulence has long since been moderated to the simple level of "conscience," with the attendant consequence of mainline Christian engagements with the public square coming to dominate (and, not coincidentally, also coming to lose or compromise on most of their battles to the point of extinction), while religious beliefs that have a real and living connection to robust notions of community and authority--notions which individual conscience must necessarily contest with--became marginalized. Kennedy's speech, frankly, played no small role in that transformation. Mormon concepts of community and authority, however, remain robust, if mostly latent, and the occasion of a serious Mormon candidate for president would seem a precipitous one for referring to them, if only obliquely. But Romney apparently was determined to say nothing that could be remotely understood as an invitation to theology (except, of course, the soteriological stuff that is perfectly amenable to the theology of the evangelical Protestant base he wishes to woo).

I don't blame him for this; he's a politician trying to win, and as I said before, theology has nothing to do with being president. Well, actually, let me state that more carefully: I believe that being willing to engage with, to affirm or reject, to judge and articulate and discriminate, theological and sectarian claims is an important part of America's whole civic identity, but I agree that such matters are irrelevant to the actual work of governing in America. Still, having come to the point of defining, if even just for himself, the way in which a Mormon negotiates the liberal order, it was disappointing to see him go the route of simple conscience, one which can choose between or indeed combine the many goods of many different faiths (though, as Matthew Ygelsias notes, it actually was a pretty lame and condescending list of goods just the same). Not that I would want him to throw out, or believe that Mormon candidates are obliged to throw out, a (one would hope slightly more nuanced and detailed) laundry list of broad, ecumenical moral goods, including tolerance, piety, equality, and charity--not at all! It is there, after all, that most Mormon citizens, like most citizens of all or any faith, actually live their ethical lives and find meaning in the ordinary decisions they have to make (like deciding who to vote for, for one). No, I've got no complaint at all with everyday humane liberalism, even if I take my political-theological communitarianism too seriously to grasp such on the level of philosophy. I just mourn for the fact that we have candidates--and (let's spread the blame equally here) a style of political campaigning and a level of public discourse--that feel it necessary or make it necessary for not just believers but their churches as well (as comes out in some interesting comments between Damon Linker and Richard Bushman on a radio interview yesterday) to take the easiest escape hatch, when challenged, towards the full-fledged post-Kennedy American explanation of pluralism: individual conscience above all.

Well, this is going too deep. Rest assured, there were many things I liked about the speech. He was forthright in proclaiming his Mormon faith to be a deep part of his heritage and identity, and not being a matter of convenience; I liked that. I liked how he linked together the two great contemporary alternatives to a robust religious liberty--either establishment churches that whither away, or angry faiths that turn violently against the de facto secularism which follows. (Neither of which are really anything like the full story, but there's enough truth to both that I'll cut the man a break.) And admittedly, the Sam Adams story at the end was fantastic.

That's it from me. Want to more about what a whole range of Mormon believers--most of them far less philosophical and far more orthodox than myself--said about the speech? Check out this Times and Seasons thread--so far, 180 comments and growing. But for now, for me, I'm done.


Anonymous said...


It's not clear to me how you feel Romney is misreading Adams. In his disagreements with Franklin and Jefferson while the French Revolution was ramping up, one of the points of contention was whether the anti-clerical component would result in a more complete and pure revolution (where the American Revolution stopped short) or whether it would throw the baby out with the bathwater, producing a moral groundlessness that would welcome anarchy and/or despotism. Whether he was right or wrong, Adams felt that a religious population was a necessary concommitant with political liberty.

That doesn't mean that Adams would necessarily favor school prayer, nativity scenes outside courthouses, and "In God We Trust" on the currency. But the idea that a secular society would equally (or better) secure liberty is something he'd almost certainly deny, along with Romney.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm a Mormon, with all the in-group affection that that entails, but I was quite taken aback by Yglesias's respose. It really is horribly uncharitable--it's "just silly" to say you respect the frequent prayers of Muslims? This is after all one of the five pillars of Islam, and something quite distinctive. What's so silly about saying you admire that?

Your point about the context and philosophical background of Adams' claim is very important, but I think that there is a more general sense in which people can still think that the Constitution was made for a moral and religious people, and that freedom requires religion. That's true even when it's not specifically the freedom to do good, but merely the freedom to do what you want, consistent with the same freedom of everyone else. Perhaps libertarian freedom needs religion, too. For example, the staggering percentage of Americans in prison (which isn't a good thing for freedom, whether it's liberal, republican, or some other version), does perhaps have something to do with many Americans failing to be a "moral and religious" people. At least that's a plausible interpretation of the situation, even if we've gone beyond classic republicanism and aren't about to bring it back.

The strange thing to me is that saying the Constitution is made for a moral and religious people is perhaps only given evidence in the text itself by the fact that Constitution makes no positive mention of religion, and no mention of morality, natural law, human rights, the family or other associations (i.e. the Constitution *needs* morality, religion, the family, etc. because it does nothing by itself to promote or provide for these things!). One could look at say, the German constitution and this difference becomes quite striking. You could also go directly to Madison, who rejects out of hand morality and religion as possible checks on factional strife.

Jeremiah J.

Stephen said...

I think you're being way too kind here. I'd say (and I'm hardly alone -- this is the reaction of most of the left blogs I've seen) that Romney was pretty blatantly trying to re-draw the lines of bigotry. He couldn't just take the individual conscience route, because he's explicitly trying to appeal to the religious right, for whom imposing their conscience on others is fundamental.

So he had to try and frame things so that one group the religious right hates (Mormons) is in but another (secularists) is out. He won't talk theology (because that would remind his audience of what they dislike about him)... except precisely where convenient.

And his "Freedom requires religion" line may be patriotic piety, but it's hardly anodyne: it's an attempt to say, hey, at least we all hate the atheists, right? Without drawing a comparison between the level and nature of discrimination (historically or currently) otherwise, it's like saying, hey, we may be Catholics, and you may hate Catholics... but at least we all hate the Jews! (Of course Romney was drawing the lines to include Jews... just exclude atheists and, probably, polytheists like Hindus. But it's just as odious.)

And, of course, my outrage -- like the outrage of Kevin Drum, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein and all the others I've seen -- is probably just what Mitt wanted: by outraging secular liberals, he helps show the non-Mormon religious right that he's "really one of us". Our howls are music to his ears.

I always like your writing, and you always take an interestingly contrarian point of view: but I feel you're loosing the essence here, which is to try to smooth over one group hate by appealing to another. (More than one if you count the homophobia he's courting as part of his religious appeal, and the sexism inherent in his anti-choice position, etc.) It's a grotesque performance, and I'd hope to see you acknowledge as much.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Anonymous and Jeremiah,

You both seem to assuming that I think there's something wrong with John Adams's point about the need for a "moral and religious people." But I don't think there's anything wrong with the claim he made; on the contrary, I call his words "completely accurate," and I have no problem with Romney using them. What I'm bothered by is the way he immediately moves from Adams's claim to what I would insist is an, at best, fairly puerile statement about freedom in general and religion in general. That's NOT what Adams had in mind; what he had in mind was a host of religiously informed classic republican assumptions about virtue, interest, community, and so forth. Plugging the constitutional framework Adams praises into such a broad presumption, while at the same time only having advocated just the simplistically "republican" policies, suggest to me that it's either pure pious boilerplate or it's red meat thrown to the theocons--a culture war stab against atheists and others. Jeremiah, you make a good point about religion and those behaviors presumably necessary for freedom, but again, what you're really talking about is the fruits of morality and religion. Sure, maybe you can't have those fruits without some serious theology--and I would almost agree with that, so long as I could insist in that what we're talking about is actually the contestation over serious theology. But since I don't see Romney talking about contestation and pluralism, but rather congenially-but-perhaps-not-really talking about how all faiths support a common moral tradition, I can only assume that, again, he's aping theocon language, which has unfortunately become pretty prevalent amongst Christian conservative primary voters.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Oh, and Jeremiah: I'll grant that Matt Yglesias probably went too heavy on the mockery in referring to Romney's praise of other religions; I mean, really, what else is a civic religion supposed to be? But then again, give me a break: "the confident independence of the Lutherans"? What does that even mean? And Matt rightly slammed his "ancient traditions of the Jews": so...only the traditionally observant orthodox count? I mean, sure, broadly speaking it is an "ancient religion," but honestly, those Jews who take seriously the "unchanged through the centuries" traditions Romney refers to all live in isolated communities in Israel and Brooklyn; actual Jews--even orthodox like Senator Lieberman--are the inheritors of change, not unchanging ritual.

Russell Arben Fox said...


Wow, a harsh judgment there. But I suppose a reasonable one; the people who Romney is courting really do believe in the culture war, and intend to keep it going. I don't like the culture war, mostly because I don't think the people pushing it even have a very good understanding of how cultures work in the first place. But, if ones cards must be place on the table...well, let's face it: I'm a believing Mormon like Romney, and I'm basically unhappy with unrestricted abortion rights--as I've written before--and I prefer civil unions to gay marriage--as I've also written before--and so as banal and ill-informed as I think the speech was, "grotesque" is just a little bit further than I'm willing to go. I'd rather not consider myself a homophobic and sexist culture warrior and I don't vote for those who clearly are, but I think you're looking for more contempt from me for all those sorts of people and everything they believe in than I'm able to muster.

As for your assessment of his "freedom requires religion" line...well, I thought I made it pretty clear that I thought the best sense that could be made of it was as a bone thrown to those who "rejected the individualistic 'natural liberty' that has been long accepted as basic to American pluralism." It is that pluralism which has given atheists and others the rights and respect they have today (though I suppose who might argue--not without cause--that those rights are not yet at all what they ought to be). So, in however casually dropping that line, he's forgetting nonbelievers place in the American community, as even David Brooks noted. Does that equal "hate"? Again, that's a culture war term that I prefer not to too easily assign to any number of candidates and groups, or to fulminate about in general. Maybe Romney hates the nonbelievers; I suspect more likely that he just assumes (rightly) that they won't ever vote for him, so he can drop them. Shows a lack of imagination and compassion, but not, I hope, necessarily hate. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Stephen said...


Sorry, sort of lost my temper there. Obviously you won't agree with everything I said -- and I'd probably use a different tone if I wrote with more consideration. (I don't think I even realized how strongly I felt until I wrote that.)

But I think where we differ is this: I don't think that line was a "bone" thrown to right-wing culture warriors, nor do I think it was thrown casually or forgetfully: I think it was the whole point. Romney's running as the religious right candidate: it's central to his appeal. His whole run is based on stoking the culture wars; unfortunately for him, for many of those who feel most strongly about them (on the right), his Mormonism puts him on the wrong side of the culture wars, however much he might agree with them on other issues. His response is to thus ramp the culture wars up further -- against secularists.

So while Romney may himself not hate secularists (a moot point in my view, just as it's moot whether George Wallace was a racist or just pretended to be to get votes), he's most definitely playing to those who do -- or, at any rate, see them as the enemy in the culture wars, O'Riley-war-on-Christmas style. Perhaps the point will be clearer if I put it slightly less strongly: Romney's trying to use the culture war to win votes, hoping voter's prejudice against secularists will trump their prejudice against Mormons. It's not just that he thinks he won't get secularist votes; he thinks that he will get (Republican-base) religious voters by appealing specifically and deliberately to their anti-secular feelings. A different thing altogether.

I don't think, btw, that you have to be a secularist to see this: for example Fred Clark's take was very much mine.

(I apologize for opening the whole abortion/gay rights can of worms; this is probably not the context to discuss it. Let's focus on the content of this speech -- which was, in my hearing (and in to the hearing of a lot of others, secular & liberally religious alike), a deliberate attempt to play us-vs-them, while simply re-structuring the who is and isn't part of "us" for his audience.

Anonymous said...

I understand your point better now Russell, and realize that what I said doesn't necessarily contradict it.

Perhaps the most important significance of Romney's speech will turn out to be political (rather than as an argument about the founding, American history, etc.). Romney is perhaps trying to argue that Mormons should be admitted as full participants in the American democratic order, *and* that they should be admitted as full partners in the anti-secular culture war. So naturally the left will be against that, especially people like Yglesias (an erstwhile fan of Romney) who has publicly wished that Romney would embrace his status as non-Christian and join the fight against Christian political hegemony in America, rather than add another division to the armies of the religious right. And you can see by the positive reaction, especially among the likes of Limbaugh, etc, that the right agrees that this is what is going on (though of course they're all for it). But admitting Romney and the Mormons (*as* Mormons) will once again moves the stakes out wider. The speech excluded atheists, and even non-religious believers, but it *included* Muslims, something that Limbaugh, Coulter, and others from the crudest forms of religious conervatism, would not do.

On Yglesias, I'll grant the Romney comments about Lutherans and Jews were a bit lame. But Yglesias wildly opining that the Mormon emphasis on Gethsemane makes Mitt's professions of Christianity deeply fraudulent, is well, about twice as lame. Mitt was "papering over" something that a non-Christian liberal believes should really drive a wedge between Mormons and Christians? It reminds me of Hitchens speculating that a Garden of Eden in Missouri should be really offensive to Christians in America. See, people who care little or nothing about theology or Christianity are still willing to use the former against Mitt Romney in an effort to prevent him from being viewed as a Christian. In Hitchens' case the motives were pretty bad (pushing for Guiliani), in Yglesias' a bit more understandable (wishing that Romney doesn't become another arrow in the quiver of the religious right).

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that last commment is from Jeremiah J.

Anonymous said...

It's a good deal more trivial than the other comments, but did you really mean that the occasion was precipitous, or was that a slip for propitious?

Gene O'Grady