Prof. Fox, long-time friend of Eunomia, has offered up what he would say in Romney’s place tomorrow, which I think will noticeably outshine Romney’s own address in thoughtfulness and intelligence. Here is a smart, interesting excerpt:
“Secularism” is much broader and much more complicated than the reductive, simplistic antisectarianism that some atheists preach, an antisectarianism that assumes everything religious is ultimately sectarian, part of a program to move the world in the direction of some very specific God or dogma. This is not the case. The secularism that properly adheres to the American character–a secularism which involves civility, toleration, human decency and human rights–is not a secularism that ever did or ever should launch crusades against sects, whether they be Catholic or Presbyterian or Southern Baptist, assuming those organizations break no democratically-determined laws; it is a secularism that rather emerged alongside a broadly Christian understanding of what the plurality of sects means for a society.
I don’t see a former venture capitalist using such words as metaphysics and antisectarianism, but if Romney were to give Prof. Fox’s speech he would come out of this episode with a reputation for serious thought. Politically, it could go well, when he says:
I want to emphasize that I think it is perfectly possible to legitimately vote against a candidate on the basis of their religion; I know that, even in the simple and straightforward ways in which my daily beliefs have shaped my life, there is ground for criticism and doubt.
By not denying legitimacy to such opposition, the candidate could appear at once gracious and thoughtful. Then again, it could suddenly take a bad turn, especially when he says:
But I take the American people seriously enough to believe that they will recognize and respond to an expression of faith which is Christian first and foremost, and sectarian second.
This is one of the major claims on which the entire controversy, such as it is, turns, this emphasis on “faith which is Christian first and foremost.” Would Romney want to give the impression that supporting him implied an endorsement of Mormonism as Christianity? If one of the principal reasons for evangelicals and other Christians’ anxiety about and hostility to a Mormon candidate is the fear that his nomination or election would promote Mormonism as “just another denomination,” or something of the kind, this line is almost guaranteed to confirm these voters in their opposition.
My initial response is that a speech given in this register would satisfy only those history and divinity professors and the philosophy and religious studies majors who would really, fully grasp what he was saying. (This is partly because I think an average voter who hears the word “sectarian” thinks about “sectarian violence” in Iraq and elsewhere and will be made more anxious about talk of sectarians in America; I don’t assume the vast majority to be in possession of a deep and abiding understanding of post-Reformation European history, whether they are religious or secular.) I think there are problems with Prof. Fox’s description of secularism above (a practical one being that it is embraced by a fairly small and, I would guess, shrinking constituency of humane secularists and scholarly believers), but these are problems that I don’t think a majority of the country would necessarily see or consider to be problems.
This predicament really is a trap for Romney, as I and others have observed before: if he stresses what he has in common with Christian voters, he will be criticised for not being forthright and honest enough about his own religion, and if he acknowledges difference he is probably dooming himself to electoral oblivion by alienating Christian voters. Yet recent polling shows that he is damaged even more by his evasiveness and reluctance to speak on the matter, which fits into the narrative that he is inauthentic (some might even say fraudulent). Perhaps if Romney himself were not such an obviously protean, shape-shifting sort of candidate on his policy views, his unwillingness to speak about his religion would have appeared as wisdom and discretion, instead of coming across as yet another example of his inability to give a straight answer to a question. (The good news for him is that he has not yet said that he would consult “the lawyers” about whether he believes in God.)
Update: Pew has new polling on public attitudes about Mormonism. Pew’s polling shows a significantly higher percentage overall who would be less likely to vote for a candidate on account of Mormonism than the L.A. Times poll does. The response is strongest, as we have seen previously, among white evangelicals (36% are less likely vs. the overall 25%) and weekly church-going evangelicals in particular (41%).
Second Update: My Scene colleague Noah Millman offers a different kind of speech for Romney that is more likely to succeed politically, but which pretty carefully avoids saying anything definite about his religion. I have to say that Noah actually captures Romney’s love of patriotic gushing quite well. If you wanted to make it really sound like Romney (which I know Noah wasn’t trying to do), you would need to insert at least three or four “goshes” into the speech, as in, “Gosh, this country is the greatest.” Or, as Romney actually said during one of the debates:
Gosh, I love America…. America for me is not just our rolling mountains and hills and streams and great cities. It’s the American people. And the American people are the greatest people in the world. What makes America the greatest nation in the world is the heart of the American people….It is that optimism about this great people that makes this the greatest nation on earth.