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Romney: Some Beliefs Are More Equal than Others

by Juan Cole

Mitt Romney's speech in Texas on Thursday was supposed to be an attempt to fend off religious bigotry. Instead, it betrays some prejudices of its own (against secular people), and seems to provoke others to bigotted statements. It has been likened to the speech of John F. Kennedy on his Catholicism. But we knew John F. Kennedy, and Mitt Romney is no John F. Kennedy. Kennedy strongly affirmed the separation of religion and state. Romney wants to dragoon us into a soft theocracy (not as a Mormon but as a Republican allied to the Pat Robertsons of the world). Kennedy wanted to be accepted as an American by other Americans. Romney wants to be accepted as a conservative Christian by other conservative Christians.

This conundrum is the price the Republican Party is paying for pandering to the religious Right. Can a secular person even win the Republican nomination any more? If you make yourself captive of the Protestant Right, then you will discover that they believe Mormons are heretics. The Republican Party has established its own litmus test, and since it has been a dominant party in recent years, we've all been affected by it. Romney's plight in finding it hard to be accepted by that constituency mirrors the plight of secular and unchurched Americans, on whom the very people Romney is sucking up to want to impose their narrow and sectarian values.

The unsavory aspects of this entire discourse are apparent in the op-ed of Naomi Schaeffer Riley for the Wall Street Journal. While she depicts Mormons in a positive light, she displays the most gut-wrenching bigotry toward Muslims. She writes:

' A recent Pew poll shows that only 53% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Mormons. That's roughly the same percentage who feel that way toward Muslims. By contrast, more than three-quarters of Americans have a favorable opinion of Jews and Catholics. Whatever the validity of such judgments, one has to wonder: Why does a faith professed by the 9/11 hijackers rank alongside that of a peaceful, productive, highly educated religious group founded within our own borders?'

I just wanted literally to puke on my living room carpet when I read this bilge. Islam is not 'the faith professed by 9/11 hijackers.' Islam is the religion of probably 1.3 billion persons, a fifth of humankind, which will probably be a third of humankind by 2050. Islam existed for 1400 years before the 9/11 hijackers, and will exist for a very long time after them. Riley has engaged in the most visceral sort of smear, associating all Muslims with the tiny, extremist al-Qaeda cult.

We could play this game with any human group. Some Catholics were responsible for the Inquisition. Shall we blame Catholicism for that, or all Catholics? Of course not. Jewish Zionists expelled hundreds of thousands of innocent Palestinians from their homes in 1948. Is that Judaism's fault or that of Jews in general? Of course not.

She goes on to further stick her foot in her mouth by complaining that she heard conservative Christians call Mormonism 'the fourth Abrahamic religion' (alongside Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and complains that they compared a Muslim belief she considers 'wacky' to Mormon stories. It is all right for her to call folk Islamic motifs wacky, mind you. She's only interested in being fair to Mormons, not to Muslims. Mormons are good people, but some of their forebears were also involved in violence in the 19th century of a sort that other Americans viewed as terrorism.

Riley's remarks exemplify the problems with Romney's speech, which demands fairness for his group but not for, e.g., secularists.

Thus, he says:

"In John Adams' words: "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. ... Our Constitution," he said, "was made for a moral and religious people." Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom."

What Romney omits is that many of the "religious people" among the founding fathers were Deists, who did not believe in revelation or miracles or divine intervention in human affairs. Thomas Jefferson used to sit in the White House in the evening with scissors and cut the miracle stories out of the Gospels so as to end up with a reasoned story about Jesus of Nazareth, befitting the Enlightenment.

Some Founding Fathers were Christians, some were not, at least not in any sense that would be recognized by today's Religious Right. Jefferson believe that most Americans would end up Unitarians.

As for the insistence that you need religion for political freedom, that is silly. Organized religion has many virtues, but pushing for political liberty is seldom among them. Religion is about controlling people. No religiously based state has ever provided genuine democratic governance. You want religion in politics, go to Iran.

Liberty can survive religion, especially a multiplicity of religions within the nation. Because that way there is not a central faith that imposes itself on everyone, as Catholicism used to in Ireland or Buddhism used to in Tibet. But organized religion would never ever have produced the First Amendment to the US constitution, and the 19th century popes considered it ridiculous that the state should treat false religions as equal to the True Faith.

Deists, freethinkers and Freemasons--the kind of people that Romney was complaining about-- produced the First Amendment. When Tom Jefferson tried out an earlier version of it in Virginia, some of the members of the Virginia assembly actually complained that freedom of religion would allow the practice of Islam in the US. Jefferson's response to that kind of bigotry was that other people believing in other religions did not pick his pocket or break his leg, so why should he care how they worshipped? And that's all Romney had to say. But he did not want to say that. Romney said the opposite. He implied that is is actively bad for a democracy if people are unbelievers or if there is a strict separation of religion and state.

We know the Founding Fathers and Romney is no founding father.

By Romney's definition of freedom, Sweden and France, where 50% and 40% of the population, respectively, does not believe in God, cannot have a proper democracy. But of course Swedish democracy is in many respects superior to that in the United States.

The text of Mitt Romney's sermon is here.

Romney says:

' 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. '

Look, the reason that Americans took religion out of the public sphere was because the religious kept fighting with each other in the most vicious way. We had violence between Catholics and Protestants in schools in the 19th century because religion was in the public schools, and therefore each branch of Christianity wanted to dominate and control it. You take religion out of the schools, suddenly people stop fighting about it.

People like Romney who want to put religion back into the public sphere are just going to cause a lot of trouble. 14% of Americans don't believe in God. Another 5% belong to minority religions (and both categories are rapidly growing). That nearly 20% doesn't necessarily want sectarian Christian symbols in public schools. Even a lot of the 80% that are some kind of Christian don't belong to a church and aren't necessarily orthodox in their views.

So Romney's so-called plea for tolerance is actually a plea for the privileging of religion in American public life. He just wants his religion to share in that privilege that he wants to install. Ironically, the very religious pluralism of the United States, which he appears to praise, will stand in the way of his project.

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His most recent book Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) has just been published. He has appeared widely on television, radio and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at Salon.com. He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles.

© 2007 Juan Cole

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