Thursday, December 06, 2007

Decoding Romney

Mitt Romney gave his much-anticipated "Yep, I'm a Mormon" speech today at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library (insert joke about eventual George W. Bush Presidential Comic Book Stand here). The speech was by a Republican for Republicans. Specifically Romney's mission was to convince conservative evangelical Christians that they should not hold his religion against him. On that score he bravely refused to bravely take on the issue:

    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. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes President he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.
Statements like that can be parsed by those Romney is trying to convince. (You can scroll The Corner for a range of GOPer reaction.) Of interest on this side of the aisle is Romney's view of religious freedom -- a concept he invokes repeatedly while making the case that his personal faith should not be a relevant factor in the primary. Religious freedom is a beautiful concept -- one this blogger is particularly fond of.

But Romney's cabins his concept of religious freedom so it is essentially parallel with the view of the evangelicals he is courting. Like Byron York, I detect some dog whistles. Whether this religious freedom lite is Romney's original position or another he has adopted for the moment, religious moderates and liberals should pay heed. Romney is speaking the language of people who strongly believe you have the right to come around to their way of thinking.

Romney's discussion of church and state starts of on familiar notes:

    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 conservative fight against radical secularists is old news and, frankly, not a big concern. Groups like Freedom from Religion probably go to far in their attempts to scour any mention of religion from government speech. The object of the Constitution is to make government neutral to religion. Combing out every arguably religious image, no matter how benign, at some point becomes something other than neutral.

So we are on familiar, but not yet problematic territory. The question presented is about line-drawing. How do we define acceptable government expression from unacceptable. Next paragraph is where things get interesting, but you have to pay attention.

    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.' [my emphasis]
The evangelical view of the religion clauses holds that the first clause only prohibits the government from establishing a church. Under this formulation, most -- in some cases all -- uses of government property and power to prosteletize are acceptable, as long as the government hasn't extablished a church.

And in case anyone missed the dog whistle, here it is again:

      "We cherish these sacred rights, and secure them in our Constitutional order. Foremost do we protect religious liberty, not as a matter of policy but as a matter of right. There will be no established church, and we are guaranteed the free exercise of our religion.[my emphasis]
    Early reactions from the left (Dickinson and Klein to get you started) have noted that Romney's freedom concept appears to exclude non-believers. And yes he's pretty explicit in showing them his back:

      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.

      * * *

      In such a world, we can be deeply thankful that we live in a land where reason and religion are friends and allies in the cause of liberty, joined against the evils and dangers of the day. 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. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion - rather, we welcome our nation's symphony of faith.
    But something larger -- or smaller -- is at work. Romney's "religious freedom" includes rolling back decades of Establishment Clause jurisprudence, just as conservative Christians have been agitating for.

    This is no abstract matter. Earlier this week an Eighth Circuit panel ruled against a program in the Iowa prison system that essentially set up an honors dorm for inmates in a Chuck Colson Christian rehab program -- one of the most important tests to date of faith-based social services. Will a Romney administration persist in using government resources to preach Christian doctine? The speech gives little reason to believe otherwise.