Follow-up on Romney (Muslims & Religion in US Politics)

Last week several commenters at Sepia Mutiny criticized my post on Mitt Romney's "Muslims in the cabinet" comments. Romney's apparent gaffe quickly faded from the headlines, but Romney's recent speech on his idea of the role of religion in politics might be a good opportunity to briefly revisit my earlier post, and take a look at some issues with Romney's attitude to religion in politics that come from directly from Romney's statements "on the record."

First, on the previous post. In hindsight, I regret not taking seriously the people other than Mansoor Ijaz who say they heard Romney say he would rule out people of Muslim faith from his cabinet. At the time I wrote the post, there were two witnesses saying that; by the following day there were three. All three individuals work for one libertarian magazine based in Nevada, which does pose a concern (that is to say, it's possible they're part of a right-wing anti-Romney movement).

That said, four witnesses (including Mansoor Ijaz, who in my view is not very credible) is enough: Romney probably did say (at least once, possibly twice) "Not likely" when asked whether he would have Muslims in his presumptive cabinet. The biggest problem with that statement, of course, is that it's discriminatory. And those of us who aren't Muslims should be equally concerned: if he's not having any Muslims in his cabinet, he's probably not having any Hindus or Sikhs or Jains either.

Another unfortunate aspect of Romney's statement is that it reveals his seeming lack of awareness of people from a Muslim background who might in fact be qualified for certain cabinet posts. One such person is the Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN -- one of the few high-level Bush political appointments that hasn't been a total flop.

In the end, I do not think the Romney "Muslims" gaffe is a significant political event, partly because it seems no one caught it on video, which means Romney has "plausible deniability" (damn you, deniability!). Pressed on the question by the media, Romney finesses it, and argues that what he meant was that he wouldn't have Muslims in his cabinet just to placate critics of America in the Muslim world. That explanation works just fine with the mainstream media.

Still, Romney's recent speech on religion probably isn't going to win him many Muslim friends:

"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. (link)

Muslims have "Frequent prayers" -- that's the best he could come up with? Oy, vey. (I think Jews might also be a bit troubled that his praise of Judaism is for its ancientness, a quality which has sometimes been invoked by anti-Semites. It's also untrue that the religion is unchanged; ever hear of Reform or Conservative Judaism? But I digress.)

Of course, what's really wrong with Romney's speech, beyond that absurd paragraph, is the way he completely flip flops on secularism.

At the beginning of the speech Romney says:

"Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for President, not a Catholic running for President. Like him, I am an American running for President. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.

"Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin. (link)

But by the end he says:

"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. (link)

He's perilously close to a direct contradiction in these two statements, and is only saved by a slight distinction between the idea of "politics" (where he says religion does not play a direct role) and the idea of the "public square" (where he says it should).

(Romney also conveniently overlooks the fact that "Under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance -- which, it should be mentioned, was not written by the "founders"! -- fairly recently.)

To continue:

"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. (link)

Romney wants to have it both ways: he wants to be respected by the main stream of American voters despite his belonging to a small religious minority. But he also wants to insist on the importance of keeping God in the political picture, and seemingly fudges over the fact that his concept of "God" is surely not the same as a Catholic's, or a Jew's, or a Buddhist's. (And he doesn't give a thought for what all this means to those Americans who do not believe in God at all.) The rhetoric is slippery: at the very moment when it seems he's going overboard with religion, he turns around, and describes American values in secular terms ("equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty").

In short: on religion, Romney is like a wet seal on icy pavement. (He reminds one, more than a little, of John Kerry.)