Perhaps the most extraordinary news coming out of the Iowa caucuses last Thursday was the victory of Barack Obama over his Democratic rivals. It is far too early to speculate on what Obama’s achievements portend in the long range, not only about his presidential prospects, but even more importantly about the status of race in American society. Despite the fact that his mother is white, and Obama did not present himself as a so-called “race man,” I still think that his considerable win in the caucuses was an exhilarating accomplishment in what is one of the whitest of the 50 American states.
Since much of Obama’s victory can be attributed to his success in drawing out younger voters, I will dare for just a moment to entertain the tentative speculation that maybe, just maybe, his win signals that with this generation of youth, the doctrine of multiculturalism and the mantra of tolerance have at long last caused the ugly, deeply entrenched, 400-year legacy of racism in America to begin to turn a corner. Maybe yes; maybe no. Only time will tell.
But there was another victory in Iowa last week that throws light on my subject for this Sunday morning. And that was the not quite expected victory of Mike Huckabee over the far slicker and much better financed Mitt Romney. Just as Obama’s victory is suggestive of the racial landscape in America, so Huckabee’s victory says a great deal about the religious landscape. Among other things, it speaks to the enduring political power of the evangelical Christian right in America, even as that core constituency of the Republican Party is beginning to fragment and evolve in what are relatively more benign directions. Much has been said of Huckabee’s populism, his concern for the poor and his anti-Wall Street and anti-corporatist stance. And indeed he is far more affable than Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But we should not be fooled by the moderate persona. Huckabee won precisely because conservative evangelicals recognized and supported one of their own. Indeed, his anti-gay, anti-abortion rights position and his proclamation that the United States is “a Christian nation” place him squarely on a side of the culture wars which should leave us uncomfortable. To be fair, Huckabee and his fellow evangelicals are not the only ones to proclaim that the United States of America is a “Christian nation.” Indeed, John McCain, who has been critical of Republican evangelicals, makes the same claim. And although he has not said it in so many words, Mitt Romney has also led the public to conclude that he believes it also.
In this political year, I want to examine that claim, and the place of religion in political life, by taking a close look at the speech that Romney made on December 6th in which, in statesmanlike fashion, he felt compelled to lay out his own religious beliefs and their relationship to his bid for the presidency. The fact that Romney is a Mormon, a minority sect that comprises only about 1½ per cent of all Americans, provides a special case for examining religion in relation to politics. Romney’s speech has been compared to a speech which John Kennedy made on September 12, 1960 when Kennedy, a Catholic, felt likewise constrained to explain the relationship of his religious faith to the responsibilities of the presidency.
The mantra that we are a “Christian nation,” and its corollary that the founding documents of the United States are based on Christian principles, has reached almost the level of cliché in uninformed political circles, yet this contention was seldom heard when Kennedy was running for office. My own view is that the claim is patently false, and a deliberate and, I believe, sinister effort to distort American history for the sake of political purposes. While all the founding fathers believed in God, and none was an atheist, the vast majority were deists, who believed in an impersonal clockwork God, who created the universe, but did not intervene to perform miracles. Theirs was a rational religion, liberalized and universalized by the rational precepts of the Enlightenment and the Enlightenment’s fascination with nature and science.
The political theories of the founders reflected this commitment to rationalism at the expense of supernaturalism and esoteric beliefs.
In their theory of democracy, the powers of government were derived via a social contract and emerged from the people below and not God above. As children of the Enlightenment, they feared the concentration of power, including the power of the clergy, and they brilliantly created a framework that would offset joining the power of the church with the power of the state. As much as possible, they strove to relegate religion to the private spheres of life, asserting that one’s religious belief was a matter strictly between a man and his God, and not of any concern to the state.
In the relationship of the government to religion, the state was neither to impede religious belief, nor was it intended to support religion, as the religion clauses of the First Amendment stipulate. In other words, the state is to be neutral when it comes to religious belief; neither prohibiting it nor sustaining it. Another way of saying this is that the government the founders envisioned was a secular government. The founders believed that a secular, or neutral, government stood the best chance of not inhibiting or corrupting religion, and by remaining secular stood the best the chance of not being employed by strong religions to oppress minority religions.
The evidence that the founders disavowed that the United States is built on Christian principles is overwhelming. As proof one can simply ask the naïve question, that if it were the intent of the founding fathers to create a Christian republic, why didn’t they say so explicitly? That the New Testament is a religious document is beyond dispute in that it is riddled with God talk. Yet most Americans, I bet, would be surprised to learn that the US Constitution is a totally godless document. Indeed, if its drafters intended it to be a religious or Christian document, they most likely would have opened it with words such “We the children of God, in order to form a more perfect union under the dominion of our Lord Jesus Christ, etc. etc. But as we all know, the Constitution deliberately begins with the preamble, “We the people of the United States…do ordain and establish this Constitution,” as if to underscore the totally natural and human origins of both the document and the government it is bringing into being.
Quotations from the founders are legion. John Adams had written in 1787, “The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature…” And James Madison, the father of our Constitution, laid bare his own feelings about Christianity when he wrote, “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruit? More or less in all places, the pride and indolence of the clergy, ignorance and servility of the laity; in both superstition, bigotry and persecution.” In the last year of Washington’s second term, the United States entered into a peace treaty with the Muslim rulers of North Africa in order to ensure safe passage of American ships in the area, which were chronically disrupted by piracy. Article 11 of what became known as the Treaty of Tripoli, in order in part to explain the new nation to foreigners, explicitly states “As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion…” This treaty was endorsed by the Secretary of State, read in toto before the entire Senate, and signed into law by President Adams. Throughout this multistage review, Article 11 never raised the slightest concern.
But perhaps most significant is the fact that the Constitution only mentions religion once, and in a negative sense. Article 6 reads, “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Since this is part of the Constitution proper, as has been pointed out this provision precedes even the First Amendment with its religion clauses.
I think that we need to keep this historical context in mind as we look at Romney’s December 6th speech, and compare it with Kennedy’s speech in 1960. In a superficial sense Kennedy, the Catholic, and Romney, the Mormon, were faced with parallel problems. Both had to try to overcome the prejudices their candidacies confronted resulting from their being members of religious minorities. Yet in many ways their situations were different, and their responses very different. Kennedy confronted two related problems in Protestant-dominant America. The first was the suspicion and hatred, sometimes vitriolic hatred, that Protestants had for Catholics prior to the mid-1960s. When I mention this division to my students, they barely have any idea what I am talking about, so greatly has the religious landscape changed in the past 40 years. In the first half of the 20th century, the primary religious alignments were configured with the majority Protestants, on the one hand, holding in contempt Catholics and Jews. Since the late 70s, with the rise of the so-called “theo-cons,” conservative Protestants, Catholics and Jews are aligned against liberal and moderate Protestants, Catholics, Jews, political liberals, humanists, and atheists, etc.
Around the time of World War I, the Ku Klux Klan was a massive grassroots organization with a membership of nearly three million. As is well known, the Klan’s primary targets, of course, were blacks. But second on their hate list were not Jews, as we would expect, but Catholics. There were powerful Nativist backlashes in those days against working class immigrants, and I contend that the story of hatred leashed against Italian Catholics coming to this country has yet to be told.
The anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States was not exclusively gutter hatred, in that it had its sophisticated apologists as well. Most liberals probably do not recall that Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization that I currently admire, had as its original name, “Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State.” In its day, it was a powerful anti-Catholic lobby. In 1949, journalist Paul Blanchard wrote an influential book entitled American Freedom and Catholic Power, published, I note, by Beacon Press, which is the publishing organ of the Unitarian Church. Blanchard’s argument was that Catholic politicians were agents of the Pope, and that American Catholics were merely pretending to be democrats, waiting for the time when they could achieve power and transform the United States into an autocratic regime under direction of the Vatican. It was this type of reasoning that led respected Protestant clergymen, such as Norman Vincent Peale, to organize against the Kennedy campaign.
While all this partakes of a heavy dose of bigotry, it was not totally ill-founded. Throughout the 19th century, the Catholic Church was ideologically anti-modern, and until the Second Vatican Council, which was called after Kennedy took office, the official position of the Vatican was skeptical of democracy and opposed to religious freedom. In addition, as many Americans knew well, the Vatican was warmly supportive of Franco’s fascism in Spain. In short, what Kennedy confronted in 1960 was not the “weirdness factor” presented by Catholicism, since most American had some idea of what Catholicism was religiously about, or did not care. It was fear of Catholic power.
What Mitt Romney faces is quite different. The impetus for his December 6th speech was the fact that Mike Huckabee, a bona fide born-again evangelical and former Baptist minister, was gaining in the polls in Iowa. Mormonism has been derided by the evangelical camp as a “cult” and is construed as a Christian heresy, in fact, not Christian at all. In this sense, it is held in lower regard by evangelicals than both Judaism and Islam, which are parallel monotheistic faiths. Romney’s task was to demonstrate that as a Mormon he is a Christian just as they are, and as such is a part of the mainstream.
Unlike Kennedy’s Catholicism, which was well known, Mormonism is foreign to most Americans, and for those who know something about it, strange in a way that can readily give rise to distrust and dislike. For one thing, some Mormon rituals go on in Mormon temples from which non-Mormons are barred. This secrecy, like what was projected on to Masons, gives rise to the notion of exclusivity, if not the fostering of conspiracies. Though it was barred from mainstream Mormonism for over a century, the fact that Mormons practiced polygamy was a source of great contempt. But there is much more. The history of Mormonism in the 19th century, since its founding in the 1830’s, was riddled with violence. Before they were chased out of Missouri, the early Mormons had their own militia. Often the Mormons were the victims of violence, as was Joseph Smith himself, but often they were the instigators and perpetrators of violence. For ten years before 1857 the territory of Utah was a theocracy under the rule of Brigham Young, until the federal government sent in the Army to overthrow the Mormon autocracy. It was in that year that Mormons killed 120 unarmed men, women and children who were members of a wagon train from Arkansas who were passing through Utah, in what became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Since the abolition of polygamy in 1890, the Mormons have energetically worked to assimilate to American society. As a result, the young missionaries who come to your door and are sent around the world are squeaky clean. The Church has for the most part joined the Republican Party and emphasizes family values, and people such as Mitt Romney with his picture-perfect family presents himself as the model of upstanding refinement and probity.
But as Mormonism has gone mainstream, its specific doctrines remain heretical to evangelicals, and weird to just about everyone else. For instance, Mormons believe that after his resurrection, Jesus came to the New World and preached to Native Americans. They claim that they have come to restore the true faith, which was lost and deformed sometime after the time of St. Peter. They believe that Jesus is alive now, and both he and God have a physical body. They believe that all human beings can become God, and as is well known, Mormons believe that a person can be baptized after their death, and so the church is on a campaign to locate every person who ever lived, so that they can receive posthumous baptism. From the perspective of a rationalist or an atheist, such beliefs are no more incredible than belief that God split the Red Sea, or a virgin gave birth to God’s son, but from the point of view of evangelicals, which Romney badly needs to woo, such doctrines are deeply heretical.
If we consider the spirit of Article 6 of the Constitution, none of this should make any difference. But is it does, and politicians especially today know that. In fact, Huckabee on the campaign trail was far more offensive that Romney, when in his TV campaign ads he had flashed across the screen the message “Christian candidate.”
But, what did Romney say in his speech, which was played as an important political moment? In short, the primary audience was Christian evangelicals, and his message essentially was “I am just like you.”
The speech was billed as Romney’s “Kennedy moment.” Indeed, to establish that fact, toward the beginning, Romney said,
Almost 50 years ago, another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president…
Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church, for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin…I will put no doctrine of any church above the duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.
So far, so good. But then Romney’s political purposes become manifest. He mentions his Mormon faith only once, and then having just said that matters of the church end where matters of the state begin, he tells us that he believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the savior of mankind. Romney walks a tightrope: he needs to affirm his belief in Jesus in order to appeal to evangelical Protestants, but he steers away from disclosing any specific Mormon doctrines, in which he claims to so fervently believe, knowing that to do so would alienate the very constituency he needs to attract.
Then he begins to throw out what is red meat for the evangelical constituency. Romney expresses his love of the Catholic mass, the nearness to God of the evangelicals, the independence of Lutherans, the ancient heritage of the Jews, and the commitment to frequent prayers of the Muslims. But noticeably and conspicuously absent is any reference to the 30 millions Americans who define themselves as freethinkers, non-believers, agnostics, humanists, etc.
Then in order to mainstream his religious conviction, he trots out what sociologists of religion refer to as “America’s civil religion.” Romney invokes the common moral principles that allegedly grow out of the religious faith of the American people. He cites the cause of abolition, the civil rights movement, “the right to life itself.” Anyone who knows anything about Mormonism can only chuckle. When it comes to abolition and civil rights, Mormonism was explicitly racist in that it did not allow blacks into its priesthood until 1978. When it comes to “the right to life” this is, of course, a reference to the anti-abortion movement, and not the anti-death penalty movement in that Mormonism doctrinally supports capital punishment.
Romney gets to the heart of his message. He says,
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 acknowledgement of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.
This is coded language, instantly recognized by any member of the politicized Christian right. As Garry Wills recently wrote in The New York Review of Books,
This phrase has not been much noticed in public comments on Romney’s speech, but it is a key statement for the evangelicals. Like George Bush’s speechwriters, Romney has learned the code of Rightspeak – just as he learned Leftspeak when running for governor of Massachusetts.
That secularism is a religion is a position fiercely held by some on the right. They use it to say that separating church and state breaches the First Amendment, which forbids the establishment of a religion. In their topsy-turvy arguments, the First Amendment thus forbids the separation of church and state. Romney was speaking in that code. In his speech he made many other appeals to the religious right, as when he put “the breakdown of the family” in his list of most pressing national problems (another hit at Giuliani). …The Bush administration and its lackeying Republican Congress would do anything for the religious right. When the right said “Jump!” on the Terri Schiavo case, the President and Congress said “How high?” Romney signals that he would act the same way.
Romney also tells us that “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” As Wills notes, it is Romney’s effort to sneak God into the Constitution, which, as we mentioned, is a godless document. Romney’s statement is also historically indefensible. Religion flourished in the Christian Middle Ages, as it does today in Saudi Arabia and many other places where religion is particularly comfortable in environments that are politically unfree. Western Europe, where societies are open and free, is also not very religious, suggesting that freedom does not require religion. If anything, if religious diversity is to flourish, a state which Romney implies he admires, it would seem that what is required is secularism, the very value which Romney denounces. In his attack on secularism, Mitt Romney is wrong.
By contrast, I think that Kennedy got it right. Romney made his religion speech at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Texas. It was a congenial place. When Kennedy made his speech on December 12, 1960, he went right into the lion’s den to address the greater Houston Ministerial Association, comprised of Southern Baptist Evangelicals.
When Kennedy spoke, his position was clear and unequivocal. He said:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.—where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote. – where no church is or church school is granted any public funds or political preference…
I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end – where all men and all churches are treated equal – where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice…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.
I ask you to judge me…on the basis of my record of 14 years in Congress – on my declared stands against an Ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools…
Whatever issue may come before me as President – on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.
Kennedy’s and Romney’s religion speeches were both reflective of the times in which they lived and particularly the relationship of church to state. Their speeches were also, I believe, expressive of the quality and courage of their leadership. Where Kennedy was clear, indeed, absolute, in his commitment to the separation of church and state, Romney talked out of both sides of his mouth. Whereas Kennedy had the courage to defy his own Catholic church, and do so in specific terms, Romney skirted any discussion about his Mormonism and attempted to kowtow to the Christian Right. Whereas Romney clung to the current Bush administration’s position on religion and the state, Kennedy was on the side of the future as he defied the Vatican’s ban on American style democracy, which the Catholic Church was soon to rescind in the Second Vatican Council.
As a student of church-state relations, I think John Kennedy got it right, and Mitt Romney got it wrong.
We’re in an election year, which I hope will bring a significant, if not a radical change in American policy in regard to America’s role in the world, international peace, and economic justice, and not least bring a restoration of the proper place of religion in American life. The radical right declares, I believe disingenuously, that there is not enough religion in public life. It is my belief that there is too much.
Among my hopes for the future is that Kennedy’s vision of church-state relations be restored, and that we will be able to rebuild the wall of separation between church and state that is now severely broken. I think that this needs to be among our cherished hopes for the sake of sustaining the secular state, for the sake of religious harmony and brotherhood, and for the sake of American freedom on which any future worth having depends.
Dr. Joseph Chuman
6 January 2008