Candidates Perverting History
On 6 December, Mitt Romney delivered a speech, "Faith in America," in which he tried to allay certain qualms some may have with his Mormon faith and to lay out his own views on the proper roles of religion and religious expression in American public life. He presented what seemed to me an incorrect and frankly dangerous interpretation of those roles, and trotted out selective readings of our country's founders to bolster his arguments.
Romney said "We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.
The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.
We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.'"
The founders of our nation did not put God on our currency (that didn't happen until the 1860s), or in our pledge (that was 1954). Their religion was a personal matter, not to be worn on the sleeve, but to be practiced as they saw fit within the context of their own lives (witness Jefferson's sincere grapplings with his faith, or Franklin's, or Adams'). They understood the moral underpinnings that can be offered by religious faith, but they did not shove their religion in the faces of others, as so many in America today seem entirely set on doing.
To me, religious faith is one of the most intimate and personal parts of a person's life, and it seems utterly offensive that Romney felt he had to stand before a crowd and attempt to justify his family's Mormon beliefs. A candidate's faith, it's true, might inform their policy positions or political judgments, but there is a reason that the only mention of religion in the original (unamended) Constitution was this one, in Article VI: "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
No religious Test. But can there be any other term for what Romney was attempting to 'pass' by giving that speech this month? Or for when all the candidates in a debate are asked whether they believe every word of the Bible is true? Indeed, those aren't official religious tests, but they're getting awfully close. My views on the Bible are my own; yours are your own, and certainly we ought to be able to talk about those views and debate what differences exist in a calm, deliberate and rational manner - but I simply don't believe that questions of personal faith or theological interpretation should be playing such a visible and outsized role in our presidential politics.
TPM's Steve Benen brought up another interesting example of current candidates twisting history to suit their own ends recently, noting comments by new Huckabee campaign manager Ed Rollins to Lou Dobbs on Friday. Dobbs asked Rollins "... I have never, perhaps you have, but never in my experience have I seen so many candidates talking about God in a primary campaign and in a general election, I presume and it will remain there. How comfortable are you with that and is it appropriate for god to be in religion and faith to be this prominent in a secular campaign for president?"
Rollins began his response by saying "You go back to the signing of the constitution I think 26 of the people that signed it were ministers. At the beginning of this country, we began with a nation under God ..."
Not exactly, on so many levels. J.L. Bell over at Boston 1775 fact-checks Rollins' statement, finding that of the 36 signers of the Constitution (55 men total were at the Convention, but only 36 signed), only two had ever preached: Abraham Baldwin of Georgia, who served as a chaplain during the Revolution before becoming a lawyer, and Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, who was licensed to preach but taught math instead.
Rollins' confusion might stem from his boss, who made a similar goof during an October debate. Huckabee, in answering a question about abortion rights, said "When our founding fathers put their signatures on the Declaration of Independence, those 56 brave people, most of whom, by the way, were clergymen, they said that we have certain inalienable rights given to us by our creator, and among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, life being one of them. I still believe that."
In fact, just one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (there were 56) was an active minister in 1776: John Witherspoon of New Jersey. Several others (3, maybe 4) had preached at various times in the past. Hardly "most" by any measure.
These missteps may be and presumably are entirely innocent, but they serve to perpetuate the myth that Romney, Huckabee and others who envision a much more prominent contemporary role for (Christian) religion in American public life wish to promulgate. If candidates are going to use history to win votes and influence people, they ought to at least get it right.