Gov. Romney is attempting to do a jujitsu trick with this speech, which is actually an old political strategy. He is attempting to turn concerns about his faith, which seems very sincerely and intensely held, into recognition that the sincerity and intensity of faith is itself a good thing.
Consider two lines in the speech. First, Romney said that “[a]s governor…I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution — and of course, I would not do so as President. I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.”
Along with this, he also said “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.” He is trying to say that religion has a moral energy, but it cannot speak directly to issues of policy. This is a classic mid-century understanding of how religion can help moral and political life; it offers little unique in the way of direction to our moral endeavors, but it does offer something significant in the way of energizing our efforts.
It turns out that everyone was looking in the wrong place — or rather, to the wrong president. The antecedent figure to look to here is not Kennedy but Eisenhower, who famously said that “our government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”
The problem with this approach is precisely that it assumes a clear division between religion and politics, between “affairs of the nation” and “church affairs.” Historically, no clear division was acknowledged between those two things. It is an achievement of modernity, over the past several centuries, to begin to insinuate that religious belief and civic commitment are two viably distinct dimensions of human life. This is not to say that they were totally conflated in all times and places; but the distinctions Romney drew today are very unusual, historically speaking. And it is still not at all clear that those distinctions are right — that in fact we can imagine religion and politics as totally separate spheres of human life without tension between them.
In fact, contemporary political and cultural life is even more challenging than that. For many of our most fraught debates over the past several decades — on culture war issues as well as geopolitical issues — do seem to rest on judgments that are frankly moral, not a matter of neutral policy but grounded in assessments of reality that speak in necessarily normative vernacular. To what degree was the USSR an evil empire? What do we owe the poor in our own country? What do we owe those who suffer genocide, thousands of miles away? Is abortion the intrinsically evil killing of a human life, or the potentially tragic termination of a preliminary entity that would become a human life? These debates in the public realm are as much moral and metaphysical and theological debates as they are political ones.
Indeed, many of the Republican Party’s legitimate complaints about the expulsion of religion from the public sphere in the last few decades were built on a critique of just the approach Romney was using — which was, effectively, what much of the Democratic Party thought after the 1960s. Religion and politics are not supposed to relate to one another. They are wholly separate spheres of life, one “private,” the other “public.” It is ironic, then, that Romney’s speech was so focused on resolving his political views that he may have ended up replicating that approach, and that may mean he didn’t really address the issue at all. Evangelicals who are persuaded by critiques of such an approach to religion and politics will be no more satisfied that a Republican voices them than if a Democrat did.
Finally, one should bemoan Romney’s tepid appreciation of Islam. Was it all he could do to say that he admires the “commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims”? One imagines there is more to find admirable in Islam — for example, the seriousness with which Muslims take their religious practice, well beyond the requirement to pray five times daily. One might point to the zakat, the alms that good Muslims are supposed to give; or perhaps the month of Ramadan, recently concluded, during which Muslims avoid all forms of sensual pleasure (most notably eating, drinking, and smoking) during the daylight hours. Especially in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, attention to how a religious tradition can work against gluttony would not be a bad thing to point out. In any event, if you’re not willing to say something real, it seems unhelpful to say something so empty.
Charles T. Mathewes is an associate professor of religious ethics and the history of Christian thought at the University of Virginia and the author of A THEOLOGY OF PUBLIC LIFE (Cambridge University Press, 2007).