The Daily Sandwich

"We have to learn the lesson that intellectual honesty is fundamental for everything we cherish." -Sir Karl Popper

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, United States


Thursday, December 06, 2007

Sermon on the Mic

About sixteen tons of virtual ink have been spilled already on Romney's "religion speech." And it's not as though I'll be making any extraordinary contributions to the dialogue, but sometimes it just feels nice to vent.

The obvious parallel is with Kennedy's 1960 speech about his Catholicism. Strange as it is to think that many Americans were suspicious of him because of his religion, his response was to point out that holding public office to him meant serving the public-- not pushing an ideological agenda. Mitt Romney did almost exactly the opposite. Intentionally.

That's pretty breathtaking, considering that the beliefs he was trying so hard to sell were those America's founders wanted so much to escape. For example:

"Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone."

It's almost poignant to see how hard Romney and his group of writers, marketers, and focus groups tried so hard to make Bartlett's book. But that entire passage is meaningless, in addition to its glaring similarity to actual famous quotations. But Romney didn't build his career on sincerity:

"Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world."

This from the guy who runs as a different person for each office, but always in a completely studied, pre-fab sort of way. But two especially troubling aspects of the speech were touched upon by Sarah Posner:

[His speech] was, at its core, as anti-Enlightenment as Rod Parsley's most recent book, Culturally Incorrect, which pointed to the Enlightenment as the root of all of our current problems. Romney posited that Americans believe that "liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government" and belittled the grand but empty cathedrals of Europe, suggesting, with as much robotic sarcasm as he could muster, that Europeans are perhaps "too enlightened" to venture inside. While Romney was asking Americans to have an enlightened response to the variety of religions in our country (or, or more specifically, asking biblical literalists to forgive his religion's deviation from their brand of literalism), he was simultaneously mocking the very basis for the constitutional republic: a government by and for the people. Not by God, and not for God, either.

That said, the fact that Romney felt compelled to defend his religion tells us a lot about whether Americans -- or at least the Americans in his target audience -- really do believe, as he suggested, that anyone who prays to the Almighty is A-OK. Mike Huckabee hasn't been asked to explain why he has embraced the endorsement of Tim LaHaye, who thinks non-Christians have been making a 2,000 year-old terrible mistake for which they'll pay at Armageddon. Why the Book of Mormon is considered weird but Left Behind isn't says a lot about what the issue here really is.

First, the reactionary sentiment. Mitt Romney's speech was antithetical to our system of government. And it's the way every last GOP candidate talks. As one conservative friend likes to say about that trend, "he's just saying that to get votes-- he doesn't really believe it." As if being a practiced and confident liar is an improvement. It's interesting to see someone point out the anti-Enlightenment feelings of the political right. Particularly because so many academic postmodernists do the exact same thing. Truth as a totally subjective phenomenon, disregard for science and logic, and a dismissal of humanist liberalism-- these are things common to the Republican party and postmodernists today. I suppose it's a good thing the GOP detests higher education so much, because they share a whole lot more than they think.

Second, there's the dramatic fashion in which Romney and far too many other Americans just keep missing the point. And it's the one thing his speech had in common with Kennedy's.

He was recalling the early days of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, on the brink of the Revolutionary War, when the early Americans from various faiths were gathered together. They wanted to pray, Romney said, but they did not know whose prayer to use.

"Then Sam Adams rose, and said he would hear a prayer from anyone of piety and good character, as long as they were a patriot," Romney said, reading off the teleprompter. "And so together they prayed, and together they fought, and together, by the grace of God, they founded this great nation."

This only serves to highlight the Enlightenment views that motivated the Founding Fathers-- namely that people should be judged by their integrity, actions, and ideas rather than their professed religion or a hereditary title. That's what makes a nation democratic. John F. Kennedy recognized it in 1960, but at the close of 2007 Mitt Romney and the Republican party have taken exactly the wrong lesson from our own nation's history.