Almost the only clever thing about Gov. Mitt Romney’s long-denied and long-delayed but obviously long-prepared “response” was its location at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library, which allowed him to pose (prematurely, I’d say) in front of a presidential seal as well as a thicket of American flags. Composed chiefly of boilerplate, the windy speech raised the vexed question of the candidate’s religious affiliation—and thus broke the taboo on mentioning it—without setting to rest any of the difficulties that make it legitimate to raise the issue in the first place.
Actually, and in fairness, one should say “any but one” of those difficulties. Romney did avow, early on and in round terms, that “no authorities of my church” could ever exert any influence on his decision-making as chief executive. This may get him in trouble with some Mormons, and it does invite the question of why he adheres to a sect whose “prophet” is a supreme commander, but it is the most he could have been asked to say, as well as the least. Actually, the more he goes in one direction, the more he may find it is Mormons who are developing reservations about him. There is already grumbling in the ranks about his statement that the Bible is the revealed word of God, an absurd belief that Mormons do not truly profess, because they feel it is lacking an even more absurd later revelation to Joseph Smith. There are also those who think that Romney’s disowning of past Mormon polygamy is too opportunistic, since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does still offer the consolation prize of multiple wives in heaven (just like the sick dream of Mohamed Atta).
Trying to raise himself above this swamp of nonsense—the existence of which is his responsibility, not mine—the governor mainly treated us to evasion and a rather shifty attempt to change the subject and rewrite the historical record. It may be true that Romney “saw my father march with Martin Luther King” (though the candidate himself, who was of age to do so at the time, doesn’t claim to have joined in), but that doesn’t answer the question about official Mormon racism, which lasted 10 full years after Dr. King had been murdered, or of what Mitt Romney did or said about this at the time.
Romney does not understand the difference between deism and theism, nor does he know the first thing about the founding of the United States. Jefferson’s Declaration may invoke a “Creator,” but, as he went on to show in the battle over the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, he and most of his peers did not believe in a god who intervened in human affairs or in a god who had sent a son for a human sacrifice. These easily ascertainable facts are reflected in the way that the U.S. Constitution does not make any mention of a superintendent deity and in the way that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention declined an offer (possibly sarcastic), even from Benjamin Franklin, that they resort to prayer to compose their differences. Romney may throw a big chest and say that God should be “on our currency, in our pledge,” and of course on our public land in this magic holiday season, but James Madison did not think that there should be chaplains opening the proceedings of Congress or even appointed as ministers in the U.S. armed forces. Trying to dodge around this, and to support his assertion that the founders were religious in the Christian sense, Romney drones on about a barely relevant moment of emotion in 1774 and comes up with the glib slogan that “freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” Any fool can think of an example where freedom exists without religion—and even more easily of an instance where religion exists without (or in negation of) freedom.
This does not mean that freedom of religion is not as important as freedom fromit, yet Romney makes himself absurd by saying that Mormons may not be asked about the tenets of their faith, lest this infringe the constitutional ban on a religious test for public office. Here is another failure of understanding on his part. He is not being told: Answer this question in the wrong way, and you become ineligible. He is being told: Your family is prominent in a notorious church that proselytizes its views in a famously aggressive manner. Are you only now deciding to make a secret of your beliefs?And if so, why? Would he expect a Scientologist to be able to avoid questions about L. Ron Hubbard? Does the governor of Massachusetts who publicly tried for mob applause by demanding that we “double Guantanamo” (whatever that meant) add that the detainees must not be asked what branch of Islam they favor? If an atheist was running against him, would Romney make nothing of the fact? His stupid unease on this point is shown by his demagogic attack on the straw man “religion of secularism,” when, actually, his main and most cynical critic is a moon-faced true believer and anti-Darwin pulpit-puncher from Arkansas who doesn’t seem to know the difference between being born again and born yesterday.
According to the admittedly very contradictory scriptures of the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth warned his disciples and followers that they should expect to be ridiculed and mocked for their faith. After all, how likely was it that God had decided to reveal himself to only a few illiterate peasants in a barbarous backwater? Those who elected to believe this stuff were quite rightly told to expect a hard time, and the expression “fool for God” or “fool for Christ” has been with us ever since. That concept has some dignity and nobility. Entirely lacking in dignity or nobility (or average integrity) is the well-heeled son of a gold-plated church who wants to assume the pained look of martyrdom only when he is asked if he actually believes what he says. A long time ago, Romney took the decision to be a fool for Joseph Smith, a convicted fraud and serial practitioner of statutory rape who at times made war on the United States and whose cult has been made to amend itself several times in order to be considered American at all. We do not require pious lectures on the American founding from such a man, and we are still waiting for some straight answers from him.