Oh, He Meant To Do That

As a WaPo editorial highlights, there has been much ado about Mitt Romney’s religion speech yesterday, particularly about his exclusion of non believers from the inherent freedoms provided by American idealism.  Not once did Romney directly address Americans without faith, the closest he ever came was through an indirect attack on atheists who are trying to wipe God talk from the public square.

Even worse for those Americans without faith came the quote, “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom.”  This statement a bald faced denouncement of people without faith, and a rather thinly veiled implication that these Americans are not deserving of freedom.  But as David Brooks hints at, this was probably no accident, and most definitely an instigation of the culture wars in this country not between different religious factions, but instead between those with faith, and those without.

When this country was founded, James Madison envisioned a noisy public square with different religious denominations arguing, competing and balancing each other’s passions. But now the landscape of religious life has changed. Now its most prominent feature is the supposed war between the faithful and the faithless. Mitt Romney didn’t start this war, but speeches like his both exploit and solidify this divide in people’s minds. The supposed war between the faithful and the faithless has exacted casualties.

The first casualty is the national community. Romney described a community yesterday. Observant Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Jews and Muslims are inside that community. The nonobservant are not. There was not even a perfunctory sentence showing respect for the nonreligious. I’m assuming that Romney left that out in order to generate howls of outrage in the liberal press.

The second casualty of the faith war is theology itself. In rallying the armies of faith against their supposed enemies, Romney waved away any theological distinctions among them with the brush of his hand. In this calculus, the faithful become a tribe, marked by ethnic pride, a shared sense of victimization and all the other markers of identity politics.

As I made mention in my own initial analysis of Romney’s speech, this is what one should expect considering the audience that Mitt was speaking to.  Yeah, he had a couple of left leaning nods in the speech, but these are secondary to what is ultimately a socially conservative speech intended to signify that he stands with the Religious Right.  And in the case of one such nod to the left, this too also stands as a bone to the right.

“I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims. As I travel across the country and see our towns and cities, I am always moved by the many houses of worship with their steeples, all pointing to heaven, reminding us of the source of life’s blessings.

While this speaks to the moderates, it also speaks to the religious zealots as well, and in, I might add, a rather clever way.  Note that he even finds a way to compliment Muslims, though admittedly in a lame sort of way.  Jews get a rich and textured history and tradition, Muslims get frequent prayer.  But it tosses the Islamic faith a bone, and thusly it gives one to the Religious Right as well.

In acknowledging something good, in admitting there is something to be admired about Islam, what Mitt actually does is open the door for many Religious Right folks to engage in the religious equivalent to the dreaded phrase, “I’m not a racist, but…”

It’s that idea that if you are willing to recognize something good about someone you hate, that gives you license to keep on hating them.  In other words, this is merely political cover, drawing under the tent of religiously motivated political actors Islam to more clearly draw the line where Mitt wants it.

And in this context, the entire sentence is one giant example of baiting.  Specifically, he is bating us, the secularists, those who, despite being faithful or faithless, feel that religion should not necessarily be kept out of the public square, but definitely the governmental sphere.  We are the real enemy, not Muslims.

Radical Islam continues to serve as a punching bag for the neoconservatives so tightly bound to the Religious Right, and in serving as a continuing villain for their ongoing narrative, utter obliteration of them is undesirable.  By that same token, moderate muslims represent the best hope that the legacy of Iraq and Iran will not result in a pox upon the long term legacy of the sitting president, the Republican presidential hopefuls, and the Republican party in general, for without the political progress only they can provide in the Muslim World, the neoconservative agenda continues to look like one big failure.

On the other hand, there is nothing that secularists can give to the Republicans other than that ideological foil.  And so, yes, those without faith were omitted form Romney’s vision of freedom very much intentionally, the omission itself serving a double purpose.

Initially, it is a signal to the Religious Right that Romney’s their guy, that he’s the one that will attempt to drive God back into Washington against the wishes of the evil secularists.  But on a second level, I think he, or his speech writers at least, knew of the backlash that would result.

You would have to know that we would punch back, that we would express our outrage.  You would have to know because if the original signal to the Religious Right wouldn’t sell the speech, the fact that it pissed off so many liberals might just do the trick.

That doesn’t mean that we remain silent, however.  I want to make it clear right here and right now; while I said initially that Romney’s speech was a success, and I stand by that, I also believe that if nothing else about his campaign counted at all, if we measured his ability to fulfill the obligations of the Oval Office on this speech alone, I would say that it should be an imperitive to bar him from that office using any means necessary.

The culture war between atheists and the faithful may not ever be won.  That is to be expected, and is a trait of the religious freedoms provided by our Constitution.  It may not be the greatest thing in the world, but it is how it is, and there is nothing wrong with an indefinite national debate on whether God exists or not.

But political war between the religious and the secularists must be won by us.  There is no other option.  It is not about killing God.  It is not about subjugating him.  It is about protecting those most precious rights guaranteed by our Constitution that allow us to worship any God as we see fit, or not to if that is our conscience.  Allowing that wall to crumble poses dire consequences for us as a nation.  And to speak to those of faith, I ask you a simple question, what do you do when it is your faith that ends up in the minority?  What do you do when you are the one that is persecuted because you read the bible differently than whomever it is in power?

No one thinks it can happen.  The Religious Right never seems to get it, never seems to understand that they are unified while they struggle for power, but if they should get the wholesale power to legislate from a theological stand point as they desire, that unification will break down.  Somewhere along the way, something someone doesn’t even realize will be a point of contention will result in sectarian infighting.  In fact, that has already happened in this country, and something as seemingly innocuous as mandating reading of the King James Bible actually does result in a sectarian practice that is offensive to Catholics who follow a different version of the Bible, and Jews who can be portrayed in a negative light outside of the Torah.

Interestingly enough, Christians manage to pull the majority rules concept in this; claiming that since most Americans are Christians, America is a Christian country.  But let’s take a look at some data to get to what I’m talking about.

According to a 2001 Religion in the US study, about 81% of Americans identify as Christian.  This is a boon for those seeking majority rules imposition of faith in government.  For those in the Religious Right coalition, the numbers look initially better when you take into account that 26% of Americans identify Catholic, while 55% of Americans identify as non Catholic Christian.

But here’s where the problem arises; once you break down that non-Catholic bloc, the strongest sect is represented by the Baptists at a mere 17%.  The next closest denomination would be the Methodists at only 7%.  All of a sudden, Catholics have the upper hand, enjoying an almost ten point lead over the next largest faction, and I think given the global chain of command of their faith, I think Catholics also enjoy a slight organizational edge in this as well.

Now the core of the Religious Right, all these non-Catholic sects, find themselves at the mercy of Catholics.  Now, instead of the King James Bible, all of a sudden the bible of choice becomes the Douay, and then there’s that whole good works thing that tends to irk those who believe that straight faith alone guides the path to Heaven.

It’s a hypothetical situation, but it highlights the very “be careful what you wish for” quality of the sectarian vs. faith war that goes beyond mere cultural differences.

We’ve fought these battles before, and strangely enough, in the beginning it was the evangelicals who advocated the most for religious freedom.  Now things have come full circle, and with the advent of televangelists and grossly disproportionately strong Religious epicenters of political power, religious litmus tests for politicians are strengthening at a time when they should be ebbing.

This is the fight that Mitt Romney wants because it will help him get nominated, and yeah, I’m playing into the strategy, but that’s fine.  I will fight this fight time and again in order to avoid a million nightmare scenarios, each displaying the same kind of religious tolerance that contributed to the birth of this nation in the first place.

Europe gets it because they’ve been through it.  Those empty buildings that Romney referenced in his speech would speak stories of the Inquisition, and the Crusades, and the evils Religion made possible when bound inextricably to government.  They have the history to know better.

And we should have learned but we refuse to.  Romney had a chance to be a leader yesterday but he botched it.  Oh, he definitely gave it his all to get elected, and did a damn good job of it too.  But if he were truly the leader we need now, he would have made a passionate plea for true religious freedom, a plea informed by the hardships that his own minority religion has had to face.  Instead, he offered up only a plea for religious freedom for and to those who have little interest in it in the first place.

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