Saturday, December 08, 2007

The other God speech

For a study of contrasts you couldn't ask for a more striking one than that between Mitt Romney's much talked about four page plea for acceptance into the American religious family circle of trust and Fred Thompson's brief, off hand resume of religious qualifications, which could be scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin, and was delivered with as much ceremony as if it had.
Asked about his religious beliefs during an appearance before about 500 Republicans in South Carolina yesterday, Fred Thompson said he attends church when he visits his mother in Tennessee but does not belong to a church or attend regularly at his home in McLean, Va., just outside Washington. The actor and former senator, who was baptized in the Church of Christ, said he gained his values from "sitting around the kitchen table" and said he did not plan to speak about his religious beliefs on the stump. "I know that I'm right with God and the people I love," he said, according to Bloomberg News Service. It's "just the way I am not to talk about some of these things."

Thompson may seem to share a similar political problem as Romney in that, as a casual, non-observant Christian he doesn't sit well with the pious, orthodox expectations of the evangelical Right, whose support he needs in order to gain the Republican presidential nomination. Yet Governor Romney has crafted and delivered a carefully scripted and positioned appeal to these voters, while Thompson shows an almost contemptible nonchalance about their expectations. Whose strategy is better?

According to Lee Harris, it may be Thompsons:
The Mormon church is not Romney's problem; it is Romney's own personal religiosity. On the one hand, Romney is too religious for those who don't like religion in public life—a fact that alienates him from those who could care less about a candidate's religion, so long as the candidate doesn't much care about it himself. On the other hand, Romney offends precisely those Christian evangelicals who agree with him most on the importance of religion in our civic life, many of whom would be his natural supporters if only he was a "real" Christian like them, and not a Mormon instead.

To say that someone is not a real Christian sounds rather insulting, like saying that he is not a good person. But when conservative Christians make this point about Romney, they are talking theology, not morality. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Mormon creed will understand at once why Romney felt little desire to debate its theological niceties with his target audience of Christian evangelicals, many of whom are inclined to see Mormonism not as a bona fide religion, but as a cult. In my state of Georgia, for example, there are Southern Baptist congregations that raise thousands of dollars to send missionaries to convert the Mormons to Christianity.

Yet if Romney was playing it safe by avoiding theology, he was treading on dangerous ground when he appealed to the American tradition of religious tolerance to make his case. Instead of trying to persuade the evangelicals that he was basically on their side, he did the worst thing he could do: he put them on the defensive. In his speech Romney came perilously close to suggesting: If you don't support me, you are violating the cherished principle of religious tolerance. But such a claim is simply untenable and, worse, highly offensive.

The Christian evangelicals who are troubled by Romney's candidacy do not pose a threat to the American principle of religious tolerance. On the contrary, they are prepared to tolerate Mormons in their society, just as they are prepared to tolerate atheists and Jews, Muslims and Hindus. No evangelical has said, "Romney should not be permitted to run for the Presidency because he is a Mormon." None has moved to have a constitutional amendment forbidding the election of a Mormon to the Presidency. That obviously would constitute religious intolerance, and Romney would have every right to wax indignant about it. But he has absolutely no grounds for raising the cry of religious intolerance simply because some evangelicals don't want to see a Mormon as President and are unwilling to support him. I have no trouble myself tolerating Satan-worshippers in America, but I would not be inclined to vote for one as President: Does that make me bigot? The question of who we prefer to lead us has nothing to do with the question of who we are willing to tolerate, and it did Romney no credit to conflate these two quite distinct questions. There is nothing wrong with evangelicals wishing to see one of their own in the White House, or with atheists wishing to see one of theirs in the same position.

Romney's best approach might have been to say nothing at all. Certainly that would have been preferable to trying to turn his candidacy into an issue of religious tolerance. Better still, he might have said frankly: "My religion is different and, yes, even a trifle odd. But it has not kept Mormons from dying for their country, or paying their taxes, or educating their kids, or making decent communities in which to live."

I tend to agree. Romney's appeal may or may not earn him some marginal support with the hard core evangelical conservatives, but the lengths to which he has to interject religiosity into his political message to earn those votes may detract from his appeal to the larger voting population, who really don't want to be made to care that much about his religious views. The best way to demonstrate that your religion won't dictate your politics is to show the very non-apologetic and matter of fact nonchalance that Thompson displayed. Someone who is willing to give a response to a question about his religion that is about as close to saying "none of your business" as you can without actually doing so is going to be respected by the voters as someone who won't make their religion a matter of government interest.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I don't believe this guy is really from Georgia.

I'm from Georgia, and the people he is talking and who Romney was talking to are not tolerant.

Even they don't claim to be tolerant, and it is weird to have outsiders claim in for them.

December 08, 2007 8:30 PM  
Blogger jft said...

I believe this fellow has an honest and logical approach to the whole issue and is right --we tend at times try to stick our noses well beyond where they belong in polite society, and should cease and desist on the religion issue now, there is a general lack of tolerance, which is NOT where we came from in this nation. It is not our prime concern, the saving of a country IS, Fred is the right man for the job!

December 08, 2007 10:01 PM  
Blogger David said...

I think you might be misreading this, Duck. As a southern Christian, Thompson has nothing to prove. He goes to church with his mama, he's right with God, he's a good ol'boy.

Romney, who is a more religious man, if we can somehow think of an absolute value of religion, is not a Christian, at least by southern Christian standards, and thus has a lot to prove.

Similarly, Hillary doesn't go around talking about how important her white identity is to her and Edwards doesn't talk about how proud he is to be running for men, everywhere.

December 16, 2007 7:01 AM  

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