Wednesday, December 05, 2007

What I'd Say If I Were Romney...

...or, more accurately, what Romney would say if Romney were me.

I can't pretend to be Romney; we share the same religion, but really that's about it. He's a technocrat and some kind of conservative (business oriented, in favor of small government but mostly pragmatic, on board--for the moment--with some culturally and morally conservative causes but not reflecting any kind of real thought about how and in what way his random grabs at the social conservative bandwagon come together with his membership in the globalized financial elite of America); whereas I'm a professional parasite on the American economy academic and some kind twisted Christian socialist, equal parts socially conservative and economically progressive. If there's any Republican candidate I have any real liking for it's Mike Huckabee, and his crusade against the income tax in favor of a supposedly fairer but actually less progressive national sales tax gives him a mighty deep whole to climb out of, in my opinion. (More about Huckabee in a later post.)

So, anyway, I'm not a Republican and not a Romney supporter. But every good American Mormon has an interest in what Romney will say tomorrow, the big speech on religion which is getting so much attention. So the best I can do is pretend that I, somehow, was a Republican candidate for president, dealing with fair amount of both outright and subtle anti-Mormon prejudice, all while attempting to run a campaign that expresses my Christian bona fides to other serious Christian conservatives while not saying anything (for the sake of my own dignity and soul) reductive or duplicitous about my own Mormon faith. So here goes (note: this and other suggestions about what Romney should or could say can also be found here at Times and Seasons):

There are two stories which many different Americans, for many different reasons, tell themselves about the United States which are relevant to my campaign. The first is that we are a Christian country, deeply bound to the principles and history of Christianity; the second is that we are a secular country, deeply committed to eschewing any formal ties between church and state. I believe both of these stories are correct, but are often misunderstood. Are we a Christian country? The answer is "yes" if you mean "are our laws, informal norms, holiday traditions, civic rituals, sense of history, and so forth shaped by generally Christian expectations?" But the answer is "no" if you mean "does being a citizen of the United States entail, even implicitly, a set of theologically Christian beliefs?" For what we are not is a sectarian country, committed to the inculcation of a particular metaphysics, whether Catholic or Presbyterian or Southern Baptist. And that response should properly shape one's response to the second story. "Secularism" is much broader and much more complicated than the reductive, simplistic antisectarianism that some atheists preach, an antisectarianism that assumes everything religious is ultimately sectarian, part of a program to move the world in the direction of some very specific God or dogma. This is not the case. The secularism that properly adheres to the American character--a secularism which involves civility, toleration, human decency and human rights--is not a secularism that ever did or ever should launch crusades against sects, whether they be Catholic or Presbyterian or Southern Baptist, assuming those organizations break no democratically-determined laws; it is a secularism that rather emerged alongside a broadly Christian understanding of what the plurality of sects means for a society.

I acknowledge that maintaining that very liberal--in the classic sense--sensibility about the place and role of Christianity in our pluralistic society is hard to maintain, with many failures of understanding having occurred along the way, and we can expect more in the future. Mormons like myself live with a bright memory of that time--generations past now, but still vivid in our rituals and practices and beliefs--when we were both the cause and the occasion of such a failure. I have no intention of going over all that contributed to that failure, on both sides: I'm neither a historian nor a scholar of my own religion. I am just a believer. But as a believer, I would insist upon this: that those who are critical of the Mormon faith, and express that criticism in ways that suggest that Mormonism is too outlandish, too authoritarian, too this or too that, to be a credible belief system for a candidate for president, are playing a game which presumes the sort of cramped relationship between Christianity and secularism which I have just denied. Nothing--no single thing--that drives some to be suspicious or dismissive of a Mormon candidate for president has anything to do with the form of Christian thought actually relevant to this nation and my campaign to lead it. Instead, all such criticisms have to do with sectarian matters, involving this book of scripture or that ecclesiastical routine or this doctrine or that way of dressing or speaking or who knows what else. These are matters that can only be understood--that can only be taken seriously--if one gets into high theology, which I am not qualified to do and have no more need to do than John F. Kennedy had a need to explain the sacraments to his mostly Protestant audience. This is not, this should not be, where the political argument lies.

I want to emphasize that I think it is perfectly possible to legitimately vote against a candidate on the basis of their religion; I know that, even in the simple and straightforward ways in which my daily beliefs have shaped my life, there is ground for criticism and doubt. And some, of course, for reasons both good and bad, are hostile to any acknowledgment and defense of the kind of Christianity which I think is key to America's civil society, or at least may be hostile to the ways in which Mormons like myself have done so. But I take the American people seriously enough to believe that they will recognize and respond to an expression of faith which is Christian first and foremost, and sectarian second. Not that I don't have my particular beliefs; I do. But the Mormon faith has, over the past century, embraced America and its civil order, and consequently while we may argue amongst ourselves over this or that particular matter and what it does or should mean for politics, and we may even argue about this interpretation or that with others, we know that in terms of governing America, the Mormon faith can provide everything that Catholicism and Presbyterianism and Southern Baptism can provide. And that, I think, is more than enough.

(Two points to the reader who can guess, on the basis of the above, which just-published work of philosophy I'm working my way through right now...)


Anonymous said...

Russell, I think this is why academics don't usually get elected to political office.

They seem incapable of speaking in soundbites.

Seth R.

peep said...


Would it be a misreading to suggest this speech implies that a Jewish person would not be an appropriate choice for President of the United States?

Russell Arben Fox said...


You are, I am sure, absolutely correct. This also explains why academics make poor speechwriters.


I am certain that Romney himself would deny that reading, and for that matter so would most conservative Christians (who are generally pretty sympathetic to Jews), but being--as Seth noted above--a hopeless academic and philosopher, I strove to say something consistent with what I understand to be the core of politically active American Christian conservatism, and I don't think the implication you derive from my short "speech" is inconsistent with that. If push came to shove and everyone was being philosophically consistent in their beliefs, I do think a lot of Christian conservatives would, if not outright object to a Jewish president, then at least voice some serious concerns about the possibility. They'd be much more forthright about it if we were talking about a Muslim president, of course, but subtly or not, it'd be there, the same way it was there amongst serious Protestants when Kennedy ran. What can you say? This is the game that Romney has chosen to run with.

Patrick Deneen said...

Russell -
thanks for this. Would I win two points were I to guess "A Secular Age" by one Charles Taylor? I'm not sure it's a book whose argument is going to fly with the American electorate. The most compelling part of your "speech" I thought was the historical thawing between Mormonism and America, and one could say that was just what was at the heart of Kennedy's speech about his Catholicism. But, the fact that Romney is making this speech at all suggests that he's in real trouble, and I think the fact he feels he has to make it is going to hurt him further, in contrast to Kennedy.

Nate Oman said...

RAF: While creating a graduated sales tax is hard, creating a progressive consumption tax (which is what a sales tax is, afterall) is actually fairly simple as a conceptual matter.

It works like an income tax except that you get a deduction for all net saving at the end of the year. The adjusted income can then be taxed according to whatever system of progressive marginal rates you want. This gives you both the economic benefits of a sales tax and allows you to maintain a progressive tax system.

Stephen said...

Nu? What'd you think of the actual speech?