06 December, 2007

In Which I Become Even More Disillusioned About Politics...

So Mitt Romney gave a speech on "Faith in America" (which you can watch here, if you have the stomach). Like John Kennedy's famous "Catholic speech", the intent was to reassure voters that Romney's peculiar religion would not affect his policies. But Romney had to have his cake and eat it too. As Ezra Klein puts it:

As I argued yesterday, there were really two speeches within it. The first 846 words, which were a Kennedy-esque denunciation of elevating religion into political litmus test, and then the rest of the speech, in which Romney elevated his religion into a litmus test, said his faith, and belief in Christ, ensured that he passed it, and then warned the Christian Right to focus on their real enemy: the secular left.

The modal opinion that I have observed from those commentators who are still willing to talk about substance is that the speech was awful on the merits but fantastic on the politics. Again, Ezra Klein:
Like Matt, I found Romney's speech pretty terrible. But it was certainly a brilliant political move.

What kind of broken political system do we have that a speech that is "pretty terrible" can at the same time be a "brilliant political move"?

Matt Yglesias has a good exposition of how exactly the substance of this speech was totally incoherent. For one, it's full of contradictions. Here's Swarthmore College history professor Tim Burke's version:
1. Religious tolerance is a central value in American life
2. Secularism is a religion
3. Secularism is worthless and has no place in American life
4. The President shouldn’t defend any particular religion*
5. *As long as he insists on the centrality of Christianity to American political life
6. P.S. Mormons are totally Christians, dude.

Basically, Romney wants religious conservatives to have just enough tolerance to ignore the strange non-mainstream cult-like aspects of Mormonism and at the same put so much weight on a candidate's religiosity that only the most devout and pious candidates deserve their votes.

But we have come to expect rampant inconsistencies (and inaccuracies) from conservative political rhetoric. So let's go to David Brooks for a more constructive take:
When this country was founded, James Madison envisioned a noisy public square with different religious denominations arguing, competing and balancing each other’s passions. But now the landscape of religious life has changed. Now its most prominent feature is the supposed war between the faithful and the faithless. Mitt Romney didn’t start this war, but speeches like his both exploit and solidify this divide in people’s minds. The supposed war between the faithful and the faithless has exacted casualties.

The first casualty is the national community. Romney described a community yesterday. Observant Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Jews and Muslims are inside that community. The nonobservant are not. There was not even a perfunctory sentence showing respect for the nonreligious. I’m assuming that Romney left that out in order to generate howls of outrage in the liberal press.

And it did generate said howls, for good reason. As a postmodern liberal secular atheist I do find it a bit sickening to hear all of this talk of God as "the Author of Liberty" as if there are no secular And as if that claim makes any sense at all beyond the new American political theology that has arisen in the last twenty years, which Brooks covers next:
The second casualty of the faith war is theology itself. In rallying the armies of faith against their supposed enemies, Romney waved away any theological distinctions among them with the brush of his hand. In this calculus, the faithful become a tribe, marked by ethnic pride, a shared sense of victimization and all the other markers of identity politics.

In Romney’s account, faith ends up as wishy-washy as the most New Age-y secularism. In arguing that the faithful are brothers in a common struggle, Romney insisted that all religions share an equal devotion to all good things. Really? Then why not choose the one with the prettiest buildings?

In order to build a voting majority of the faithful, Romney covered over different and difficult conceptions of the Almighty. When he spoke of God yesterday, he spoke of a bland, smiley-faced God who is the author of liberty and the founder of freedom. There was no hint of Lincoln’s God or Reinhold Niebuhr’s God or the religion most people know — the religion that imposes restraints upon on the passions, appetites and sinfulness of human beings. He wants God in the public square, but then insists that theological differences are anodyne and politically irrelevant.

This, I think, is Brooks' more important point. It's ridiculous and repugnant that religious conservatives feel the need to exclude the non-religious from the national discussion, but they've been doing that since time immemorial (or at least since George H. W. Bush said that "atheists should not be considered citizens"). Romney, now, is consolidating this sentiment by reducing the importance of the theological differences between the various factions of Christianity to nil. (Jews and Muslims are thrown in for good measure, even though Romney has stated he would not appoint a Muslim to his cabinet.)

I think that this sort of intellectual move is very bad for our political culture. The idea that "any religion is good religion" is a kind of wishy-washiness very much like that which conservatives attribute to liberals who think that "any government program is a good government program" or "all activism is good activism". There are intellectual differences between religions and it simply doesn't make sense to say, as Romney does, that you appreciate the "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" and you wish that these features were part of your own faith, but no, those religions just aren't for you. If you're a Mormon, you are committing yourself intellectually to a certain set of claims about the world. You cannot say that "Wow, I love the confident independence of the Lutherans!" and "I think the Lutherans are dead wrong about some of the most important things in life" without abdicating your rationality on some level. As Brooks says, this is New Age-ism at its worst, because it's extremist New Age-ism. If you don't believe the new American political theology, you're out of the debate.

Matt Yglesias sums up my views on Romney:
I've previously taken the view that Mitt Romney would be the least pernicious Republican were he to take the White House, but his entire campaign has been an insult to the collective intelligence of the American people (remember the Reagan Zone of Economic Freedom?) and with this speech he's just taking the trend one step further.

What's more is that he and the rest of the Republican field have consistently spouted provably false statements on religion, economic policy, terrorism and countless other issues and the American people could not, quite frankly, give a shit. Romney and Giuliani have been frontrunners since day one and others like Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul, who, though they have fairly ridiculous views on certain issues, are at least not blatant dissemblers, cannot break into the mainstream. Conservatives appear to eat whatever is fed to them, and the "liberal" media is happy just to talk about how it will play out politically. Thus, I am pushed to the brink...is benevolent dictatorship by the MIT economics department the only option?

UPDATE: Apologies for the length of this rant.

UPDATE II: Here are just two more items on Republican dishonesty. But that's it--there are far too many examples to catalogue them all.

1 comment:

Elliot said...

I was contemplating posting something on this whole Romney fracas, but I concluded that a) it is so discussed my take will likely merely echo what the rest of the blogosphere will be resounding with (the "howl" Brooks speaks of) and b) given that its finals week, combined with (a), it wasn't worth the time.

So I'm glad, spencer, that you have contributed to the topic. I especially agree with the point that this ilk of speech should be insulting to the religious, as well as all other thinking people. This summer I read a very interesting interview with an Islamic scholar and political theorist who was trying to create a grassroots movement to push for liberal, secular regimes in the Islamic world.

He argued it not from secularism, however, but from an islamicist position - that is, that separation of church and state is essential not only to protect politics from religion, but more importantly (for the faithful, anyway) to protect religion from politics. Religion that is imposed, enforced, or otherwise used by the state erodes its worth qua religion, and perverts it. Romney has more than proved that point.

I can't remember his name, but I think I will post something about him, if I can find the interview. He also said some interesting stuff about post-colonial political institutions.