Thursday, December 6, 2007

You've got a lot of growing up to do, buddy.

So I missed the Mitt Romney "Ich bin ein Mormon" speech this morning in favor of going to the local caffeine dispensary to get an americano and a cookie, and to study for my First Testament final. I've been hearing a lot about Romney and his religion, but really not so much that I want to really go out and research it to find out what I really think about it. I'm already doing that with Christianity, thank you very much, and I'm still years and years away from being able to tell you what I really think about it.

The thing I've been hearing most about Romney is comparisons to John F. Kennedy, who was, for those who are counting, the U.S's first (and so far only) Catholic president. I took a religion & politics class last summer where we examined the role of religion in the public square and how it's evolved over time (Want a fun read? Pick up a copy of Law and Theology: Cases and Readings by Martin H. Belsky and Joseph Bessler-Northcutt, which was one of the most expensive books I've bought yet for seminary and completely worth it. Everything you ever wanted to know about civil religion is right there in one handy-dandy, faux-leather-bound volume), and we read Kennedy's speech. You can read the speech here, but here's a excerpt:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute -- where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote -- where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference -- and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish -- where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source -- where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials -- and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

For, while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew -- or a Quaker -- or a Unitarian -- or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim -- but tomorrow it may be you -- until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril.

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end -- where all men and all churches are treated as equal -- where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice -- where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind -- and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, both the lay and the pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

... If this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being President on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.
I've very tempted at this point to fall back on the old Lloyd Bentsen chestnut of "You are no Jack Kennedy," but I'll try not to. Because, clearly, Romney really ISN'T having a Kennedy moment, because this isn't Jack Kennedy's world. What Kennedy was fighting 40 years ago was an entrenched anti-Catholic bigotry, and in his speech he sought to overcome that bias by appealing to Americans' loftier values, hooking into the "civil religion" of American values which hold dear on our best days: fair and honest dealings with one another, and love and regard of one another as Americans.

Yes, Romney is fighting a bias against his religion, (and Walter Shapiro on Salon nails it when he muses that it would be ironic that in a campaign featuring a woman, a Latino and an African American that it's a straight white male who's getting discriminated against over religion), but this speech (find it here) is not Kennedy's speech. Kennedy was addressing the American public. His speech was an assurance that his religion (or anyone else's for that matter) as a corporate power would not overtake the highest office of the land. He was, he assured his listeners, not a Catholic candidate, but a candidate to happened to be Catholic. Note that this is not a question of Kennedy's personal faith, morals or how well he understands the theology he professes.

Romney, however, is only answering the question about his personal faith, and it's keyed to one specific group, conservative evangelicals, and only them. He certainly wasn't talking to me, because I noticed that mainline social-justice seeking freethinker was absent from his list of religious attributes that he loves. He is not addressing what influence the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will have over his office, but what his personal faith, morals and beliefs are. This speech is nothing more than an assurance to a small but influential segment of the voting public that his personal religion is no threat to them, that the wall of church and state has been tampered with in order to keep them out, and he would restore their place in the order. Rather than appealing to our better natures as Americans as family, Romney is appealing to our worst natures as competitive, suspicious perceived-victimized groups who want our own ways. This speech, laden with the kind of vocabulary that you'll understand if you go to the right kind of churches, is supposed to let the right kind of voter know that ol' Mitt is on his side against the evil secularists and the Islamisists.

In his day, Kennedy took Americans to task for seeking to exclude members of its own nation, much as Paul confronted Cephas when he led the Judeans to exclude the gentiles from the fellowship table in Antioch (Gal 2:11-14). Rather than emulating JFK and chastising the hard right-wing for their own biases that would judge a candidate on his religious doctrine rather the content of his religious character and praxis, rather than asking them to examine what is in them that seeks to exclude those they believe are Others, Romney chooses this moment in time to reassure Christians that his beliefs are no threat to them, and asks them to let him into their elite group so that he can exclude others right along with them.

I was expecting better. Granted, all I know about Mormonism I learned from South Park, but I hear through the scholarly grapevine that that one South Park episode summed up the history and beliefs of the LDS church better than almost anything else in pop culture. And, it really makes a point for real inclusivity and love of family, not just the one you're born into but the entire world.

Gary: Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life, and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don't care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that's stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you're so high and mighty you couldn't look past my religion and just be my friend back. You've got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls. [Turns around and walks off. All four boys just look at him in wonder, even Cartman.]

Cartman: Damn, that kid is cool, huh?

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