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Theologically correct

December 14, 2007 | Page 9

LANCE SELFA explains why professing the importance of religious faith is part of the standard marketing for political candidates.

THERE ARE many instances in American politics where the phrase employed by Karl Marx "first time tragedy, second time farce" applies. But perhaps none fit this billing better than Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's December 5 speech on religion and public life.

Widely compared with then-Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech affirming that his Catholicism wouldn't interfere with his duties as president, Romney's speech attempted to allay fears about the possibility of a Mormon in the Oval Office.

To add gravitas to his performance, Romney included dozens of references to the Constitution and the founding fathers alongside philosophical ruminations. CNN and C-SPAN played along, presenting the speech live as if it was a presidential address.

Trappings aside, Romney's speech was nothing like the one Kennedy delivered almost 50 years ago. For one, Kennedy gave his speech before an audience--Southern Baptist ministers--that included his harshest critics. Romney's speech came before a handpicked crowd at George Bush Sr.'s presidential library.

More importantly, Kennedy asserted the necessity "an absolute separation" of organized religion and government. Romney, on the other hand, used his speech to call for tolerance for his Mormon faith, while asserting that religion and government should be intertwined.

The respected Middle East analyst Juan Cole explained Romney's purpose well: "Romney wants to dragoon us into a soft theocracy (not as a Mormon, but as a Republican allied to the Pat Robertsons of the world). Kennedy wanted to be accepted as an American by other Americans. Romney wants to be accepted as a conservative Christian by other conservative Christians."

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WHY DO politicians feel compelled to profess their religious faith in public as if they were running to be spiritual counselors as well as political leaders?

In general terms, it's part of the standard candidate marketing that tries to convince ordinary Americans that the politicians are "just like us," even while they're professing policies that will actually hurt ordinary people. For a politician who regularly exudes the sincerity of a snake-oil peddler, Romney's speech gave him a chance to appear both "presidential" and "human" at the same time.

George W. Bush's personal religious devotion may well be sincere and highly important to him. But his choice to make it seem as important to us is a political decision driven by his need to appear as an "ordinary guy" and, at the same time, to pander to the religious right.

Seen from this angle, Bush's well-publicized Bible reading is no different than his political decision to buy a "ranch" in Crawford, Texas. It's another piece of showmanship intended to show that this scion of a wealthy Eastern family and graduate of Harvard and Yale is really a plainspoken cowboy who just loves clearing brush in Texas.

As the conservative party that has led the attack on working-class living standards over the last generation, the Republicans have most invested in this pandering to religion. The mass component of the modern Republican Party was rebuilt in the 1960s and 1970s through an appeal to segments of the population that rejected the social changes of the 1960s.

When one boils down the various "culture war" issues that the Republicans have used through the years, they come down to a rejection of the gains of the 1960s social movements. Opposition to abortion is one aspect of a rejection of the gains of the women's movement. Opposition to affirmative action is another way to oppose the gains of the civil rights movement without appearing to defend Jim Crow segregation. And so on.

When political ministers, including one-time segregationists like Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, organized these various strands of backlash into a voting bloc, Republican Party politicians ended up courting it as another constituency that could offer thousands of foot soldiers for Election Day.

Romney's attempt to do just this was the most phony and dangerous thing about his speech.

As the New York Times editorialized, while ostensibly offering a plea for religious tolerance, Romney "was trying to persuade Christian fundamentalists in the Republican Party, who do want to impose their faith on the Oval Office, that he is sufficiently Christian for them to support his bid for the Republican nomination. No matter how dignified he looked, and how many times he quoted the founding fathers, he could not disguise that sad fact."

During the speech, Romney trotted out what the Times called "myths at the heart of the 'cultural war,' so eagerly embraced by the extreme right." These myths include the assertion that the writers of the Constitution didn't intend the First Amendment to enforce "freedom from religion." Worse, Romney felt compelled to pledge that he believes Jesus Christ was the Son of God--as if that personal belief has any bearing on his qualifications for office.

The problem with all this religiosity is that it distorts what is really going on in U.S. politics.

For years, the Democrats have lacerated themselves trying to overcome the "God gap" to win over religious voters. The standard media reading of the 2004 election result was just that: John Kerry lost because the electorate was more concerned about "moral values" than about secular concerns like the war in Iraq or jobs. Pundits like Andrew Sullivan believe Barack Obama is a transformative figure because he appears to be able to speak ably about faith.

But while Democrats try to make their candidates appear more religious (and need one say, more like the Republicans), the tectonic plates of politics may be shifting in the other direction.

Opinion data show that, over the last half-century, the number of people who consider their religion important in the life has dropped by almost 20 percentage points and the number of people who think religion is increasing its influence has dropped 30 percentage points, according to a study by the American Enterprise Institute's Karlyn Bowman.

"Are we focusing on something that is becoming less important? I confess, I think so," Bowman told a 2006 Pew Forum seminar. "I can't quite understand the fascination with the God gap...because so many gaps--as you pointed out, the partisan gap, the ideological gap--are much larger overall and play much more of an important role politically."

In fact, one of the fastest-growing sections of the electorate is the "non-religious" or "seculars" whose numbers have doubled to about 16 percent since 1990.

In making their pact with religion in the last generation, politicians may just have generated a "secular" backlash. If so, that's good news. Politicians and political parties should be judged on what they're actually proposing for working people, and not on their theological views.

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