Sunday, December 09, 2007


The New York Times's commendable decision to print parallel passages from Mitt Romney's speech last Wednesday and JFK's famous address to Texas Baptist Ministers in 1960 did a commendable service by reminding us of just how far we have come--or how low we have sunk. Too many leftist Americans today remember the 1950s and early 1960s--the High, as Strauss and Howe would put it--only as a repressive time that ignored the claims and visions of women, minorities, and gays. The paradox, of course, is that at no other time in history, perhaps, have American politicians spoken so boldly of an America in which no distinctions should divide citizens--including, or especially, religious ones. No generation has taken assimilation more seriously than the GI or "greatest" generation--and they fittingly produced the first (and still the only) non-Protestant President, who stated his beliefs, on that famous occasion, in these words.

"Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end--where all men and all churches are treated as equal--where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice--where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind--and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

"That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of Presidency in which I believe--a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. 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 would not look with favor upon a President working to subvert the first amendment's guarantees of religious liberty. Nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so--and neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test--even by indirection--for it. If they disagree with that safeguard they should be out openly working to repeal it.

I want a Chief Executive whose public acts are responsible to all groups and obligated to none--who can attend any ceremony, service or dinner his office may appropriately require of him--and whose fulfillment of his Presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation.

"This is the kind of America I believe in--and this is the kind I fought for in the South Pacific, and the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we may have a "divided loyalty," that we did "not believe in liberty," or that we belonged to a disloyal group that threatened the "freedoms for which our forefathers died."

"And in fact this is the kind of America for which our forefathers died--when they fled here to escape religious test oaths that denied office to members of less favored churches--when they fought for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom--and when they fought at the shrine I visited today, the Alamo. For side by side with Bowie and Crockett died McCafferty and Bailey and Carey--but no one knows whether they were Catholic or not. For there was no religious test at the Alamo.

"I ask you tonight to follow in that tradition--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, and against any boycott of the public schools (which I have attended myself)--instead of judging me on the basis of these pamphlets and publications we all have seen that carefully select quotations out of context from the statements of Catholic church leaders, usually in other countries, frequently in other centuries, and always omitting, of course, the statement of the American Bishops in 1948 which strongly endorsed church-state separation, and which more nearly reflects the views of almost every American Catholic."

Yes, in those days a member of a minority faith who aspired to high office had not only to talk a different talk--proclaiming his devotion to civic, rather than religious principles--he had to walk the walk, voting, as Kennedy had done, against measures that would have favored his religion (and, one might add, huge numbers of his constituents.) To ask for tolerance for himself he had to show tolerance for others. But times, alas, have changed, as reflected in the following passage from Mitt Romney's speech.

"It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter – on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.

"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 acknowledgment 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.

"The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.

"We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.'

"Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage. Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: does he share these American values: the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty?

"They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common. They are the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united."

Romney's campaign, and his repudiation of various stands that enabled him to become Governor of one of the nation's most liberal states, has clearly established him as a man with few principles, and perhaps we should not take anything he says too seriously. Yet it seems appalling to me--and I think I would find it even more so were I a Republican--that he, unlike Kennedy, is trying to do to things at once: to claim tolerance for his particular religion while proclaiming almost complete intolerance for those millions of Americans like myself who have no religion at all. The passages I have italicized seem to imply that for Romney we do not even exist, or that we are indeed less than full Americans, since we have no sense of the origins (as he understands them) of our most deeply held beliefs as citizens. And incidentally, he is wrong--neither Adams nor Jefferson nor Washington nor Hamilton would qualify as sufficiently religious to seek the Republican nomination today. That is why the word "god", while appearing on our currency and (since 1955 or so) in the Pledge of Allegiance, does not appear in the Constitution of the United States. And while Kennedy could claim quite truthfully in 1960 that he had voted against religion--his own religion--on certain public policy questions, Romney eagerly promises to appoint federal judges who will have an unconstitutional respect for the importance of faith.

Meanwhile, as a non-believer with a lively intellectual interest in religion, I would be curious to be enlighted as to the source of President Bush's frequent claim--echoed here by Romney--that the Almighty, the Christian God, is the source of political freedom in the world. The founders referred not to a "creator" in preference to a god was not an attempt to reconcile denominations, it reflected Jefferson's deism. The old Testament God did not give the Jews freedom, he gave them the obligation to live according to his commandments for his greater glory, and there is little indication that I can see in the New Testament that Christ was espousing political freedom, either. "Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government," says Romney. No--Americans recognized liberty as a right that had to be preserved against the inevitably despotic ambition of rulers--including, or especially, rulers who claimed divine authority for their acts, as neither Lincoln nor John F. Kennedy ever did.

p.s. Today's New York Times leads with an interesting portrait of Hillary Clinton. It emphasizes her tight control of her emotions in public, while noting the testimony of a few close friends that she is a completely different person in private. It notes how difficult it was for her to become a public figure, and how sensitive she is (not, one must note, without good reason) to criticism from the press, which she does not trust. It might also have noted that she is surrounded by a closed coterie of totally dedicated adherents who carefully keep the rest of the world at arm's length.
It behooves historians to rise above issues of gender, generation, and even political persuasion to identify important similarities between political figures. The above paragraph could apply almost perfectly another famous politician, Richard M. Nixon. Caveat voter.


Roger Albin said...

Just to add to your point. Lincoln, in his mature years a theist but not clearly a Christian, would probably be disqualified for the Republican nomination also.

Mitchell said...

Amen. Romeny seems to be seeking the nomination of the Christian Party.

Anonymous said...


Not sure quite where you are re HRC and RJN.

It's easy to diss HRC: tactical, control freak etc. But the reality is the Democrats need as a candidate, and as a president, someone who is capable of ruthless political machinations (think FDR, or LBJ) against an implacable domestic enemy who will do almost anything to win the presidency, and in the Congress against a Democratic president.

It's chic to talk about 'bipartisanship' but there ain't any such out there. The Republics are out to reshape the Republic, in the Supreme Court, in foreign policy, in domestic economic policy. To finish off the New Deal and to make the US a very different place.

They won't compromise on this. Although there are ideological splits in the Republican Party, they are unified around tax cuts, around an aggressive unilateralist foreign policy, around opposition to doing anything re global warming, and around socially conservative judges, and an opposition to Social Security and state medical care.

John Bolton is not going to quit the Republican Party because Mike Huckabee is anti abortion (in Africa as well as the US). Ron Paul has a long history of flirting with racist anti-immigrant groups (see David Neiwert's careful documentation of this on Orcinus blog). Rudy Guiliani is not going to appoint liberal justices to the Supreme Court.

The only candidate who shows an independent streak on the Republican shibboleths (immigration, global warming) is John McCain, and I expect him to be demolished by the end of New Hampshire, or certainly in the South Carolina primary. He is widely hated by the Bush crowd and distrusted by the social conservatives and by the economic libertarians.

So the Democrats need a fighter, and someone who can match dirty tricks: cue James Carville and the advisors around HRC. It may not be pretty, but it is politics.

And yet in the Senate HRC showed an ability to reach across the partisan divide and work with Republican legislators. And to appeal to (moderate) Republican voters in upstate New York, a place with a completely different political complexion than the liberals in NYC environs. That is surely more LBJ and JFK than Richard Nixon?

Contrast Obama. He's already made key concessions to the other side on healthcare and social security-- not a good place to start. He's shown that he is an inconsistent performer and sometimes looks fatigued by the whole process. His message sometimes comes down to the monotone of 'I am not Hilary'. His team is relatively inexperienced and less cohesive than the Clinton one.

And I've had Israeli friends tell me in all honesty that Obama is a muslim. These are Labour-voting Israeli friends. Such is the power of the internet and misinformation. American voters, particularly the marginal ones, don't tend to be big on facts. And you have a candidate named Barak Hussein Obama who went to a muslim school as a kid. It won't take a Karl Rove to have fun with that in Ohio and Florida and West Virginia. And have Americans really reached the point where they will pull the lever for a black man for president, in the privacy of that voting booth?

I naturally lean towards Obama. But the Democrats need a shrewd and ruthless politician in the White House, not a poster child candidate on the way.

I'm not sure that comparisons to Richard Nixon really help in deconstructing Hilary Clinton. She's not conventionally corrupt (and he was) and she's only as tough as her opponents.

We saw all this with the potential Kerry presidency. It's fashionable to diss Kerry now, although his defeat was anything but a shut out: almost the largest vote share of any opponent of a president in his second term (bar Ronald Reagan of course) and actually higher than the Clinton 92 vote share.

But even before the election day, the fashionable Beltway sneering at a Kerry presidency had already begun-- Mickey Kaus of course (the 'Democrat' who likes Republicans to be elected), but generally.

I feel that same 'Beltway consensus' moving against HRC. She's unpopular in the hinterland, etc. etc. And yet we know her greatest appeal is with middle and lower middle class women. Hardly yuppie insiders.

I completely agree with you re Romney, btw.


Anonymous said...

PS About Nixon in private. My understanding is RJN was actually quite awkward in private. Profane, self-pitying, paranoid. Not charming at all.

The feeling of HRC I get is that she is warm and charming and even funny.

That doesn't sound like Richard Nixon, at least not as I have read about him.

The coterie of fanatically loyal advisers is also true of Bill Clinton, John Kennedy, GW Bush of course. And Jimmy Carter. Arguably the Clintonistas remind me more of Bob Strauss (a Texan) and the 'Georgia gang' more than they do anything else.


NoZe said...

That's a pretty cheap shot. It reminds me of that piece about winning arguments that circulated about the Internet many year ago: "You certainly do remind me of Adolph Hitler."