Friday, December 07, 2007

Irony, Speechified

Mitt Romney's speech aimed at comforting Christians about his Mormonism hit most of the right notes.

It is comforting to know that
As Governor, I tried to do the right as best I knew it, serving the law and answering to the Constitution. I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution – and of course, I would not do so as President. I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.
Yet, within just a couple column inches, he contradicts himself:
There are some for whom these commitments are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do.
How wonderful, to have it both ways. Just as with the Bible or the Quran, one would not have to search the Book of Mormon particularly carefully or long to find divine precepts that collide head on with the Constitution.

Then he raises the very real concern he either has not read, or has not understood, the very Constitution he swears to uphold:
There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.
Memo to Mitt: the prohibition of which you speak is imposed upon the government, not voters. As Christopher Hitchens puts it:
... Romney makes himself absurd by saying that Mormons may not be asked about the tenets of their faith, lest this infringe the constitutional ban on a religious test for public office. Here is another failure of understanding on his part. He is not being told: Answer this question in the wrong way, and you become ineligible. He is being told: Your family is prominent in a notorious church that proselytizes its views in a famously aggressive manner. Are you only now deciding to make a secret of your beliefs? And if so, why? Would he expect a Scientologist to be able to avoid questions about L. Ron Hubbard?
Ultimately, though, Romney, by being just careful about what he did not say as he was about what he did, probably accomplished his goal. According to David Brooks:
It is not always easy to blend an argument for religious liberty with an argument for religious assertiveness, but Romney did it well. Yesterday, I called around to many of America’s serious religious thinkers — including moderates like Richard Bushman of Columbia, and conservatives like Neuhaus and Robert George of Princeton. Everyone I spoke with was enthusiastic about the speech, some of them wildly so.
We will ignore that, according to both Brooks and Romney, only the avowedly religious may be considered serious religious thinkers.

Here is where irony kicks in. As Harry has said, the only good Christian / Mormon / Muslim is a bad Christian / Mormon / Muslim.

Mitt Romney is a bad Mormon: if there is a uniquely Mormon precept he will not toss onto the scrap heap in the quest of electoral favor, he has kept it to himself. Just so with every other candidate.

I doubt there is a non-theist whose concern about Romney's Mormonism rises above the comatose: what is the likelihood of sectarian nonsense from someone belonging to something like two percent of the confessional market? He has no need to mollify those who are the greatest skeptics, somehow without being religious thinkers.

Instead, his ecumenical spackle was directed at his fellow theists, primary among them those that tread the fine line between goodbad and badgood Christianity.

Theists are their own worst enemies.

Unless they are Good Theists, that is.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whatever would you guys do if you were stuck in a world run by bad theists?

December 07, 2007 5:47 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I think you meant that the other way around.

The part of the world I most care about is populated by bad theists.

Presuming you meant "good" theists, as in those who both know and pay attention to what their revealed texts say, what would you do?

Never mind that, though.

This post was aimed at Romney's speech, and to whom it was aimed.

Me guys didn't get any airtime on this one.

December 07, 2007 6:31 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I have a lot to say about this issue, though nothing about Romney's speech, in which I have almost no interest. I have no plans to read it.

1. Did somebody suppose that Romney was going to A) apostatize; or B) announce he would be imposing Mormonism if elected?

2. The ritual of offering sodium pentathol to America's bigots says a lot about the bigots. Namely, that the set of bigots and the set of Christians are pretty much the same set.

Anyhow, I have yet to hear any clergyman saying what so obviously needs to be said, that it is an outrage to all principles of Americanism, liberty and decency that such speeches should be expected or tolerated.

3. I would run for the exits if I ever thought any candidate proposed to live up to the doctrines of any of the Christian religions. I have noticed, in the right and libertarian wings of the blogosphere, such a rush whenever Jimmy Carter opens his mouth.

I probably have more and more inflammatory things to say, but that'll do for starters.

December 07, 2007 7:40 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Great post, Skipper. The speech was the big topic of conversation on the Bill Bennett and Hugh Hewitt radio shows yesterday, and I've been having internal debates with both of them about it all day.

First, I'll make a qualified disagreement to your good believer/bad believer rule. The Bible is open to so many differing interpretations that it is basically a one size fits all ideology justification system. Any attempt to objectively analyze what it says and reconcile all of its text to a single, coherent, noncontradictory set of moral, ideological and theological truths and prescriptions would grind to a halt before it got past the Book of Exodous. So since the Bible justifies everything and nothing, then anyone can rightly claim that it presents no conflicts with his political views or decisions. Theology is nothing more than spin, pure and simple.

Romney is appealing to Americanism, or the American civil religion. Now there are two versions of Americanism: one that says that anyone can be an American as long as you believe in God, and the other that makes an allowance for unbelievers, as long as they share American values. Eisenhower was the former, as was George Bush I.

I think that religious conservatives are grudgingly, if quietly, conceding to the latter definition of Americanism. Gelernter does so in is book, and Romney's speech seems to do so. In a conversation between Michael Medved and Hugh Hewitt yesterday, Medved mentioned that Barry Lynn, the head of American United for Separation of Church and State, made the charge that Romney's speech does not acknowledge that atheists can share in the common American moral consensus. Medved quoted this passage from the speech to prove that Romney does acknowledge them:

"And you can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me."

So an unbeliever, according to Medved, is included in Romney's big American tent if he is a believer in religious freedom. Fair enough, if that was the true intent of what Romney said, but it is understandable how that connection could be missed. It's a phrase that can be interpreted two ways. For those religious conservatives who want to explicitly exclude atheists from the common American identity, you can read it as saying that the believer in religious freedom and the person who has knelt in prayer to the almighty are the same parson. Inserting an "or" in between the two, instead of a comma, would have made the other meaning explicit, but I think Romney wanted to have it both ways with this speech.

December 08, 2007 9:49 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Your reading of

And you can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me.

is too charitable.

The only way the second clause belongs is if you eliminate the first comma and the words "any person".

Otherwise, it is speech writing so sloppy as to verge on professional incompetence.

This rewrite

And you can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom [] has a friend and ally in me.

is so much clearer, and reads so much better, that the only reason for not putting it this way in the first place is that he didn't mean it.

As for "the only good believe is a bad believer", to some extent I agree, particularly with respect to Christianity. After all, so many interpretations are possible that the Bible really amounts to a textual bungy cord.

However, I think it is possible to locate those who most vociferously identify themselves as Good Christians (the target audience of Romney's speech), those whose knowledge of the Bible is both encyclopedic and driven by universalist intent.

There you are most likely to find bad Christians.

December 08, 2007 10:49 AM  

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