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.