Obviously I'm no fan of Mitt Romney. But I have been very dismayed at the tone of the Republican primary so far, in which an explicit religious test has been so central to many voters — even to the extent that Romney was asked whether he believed the Bible literally. For cryin' out loud, we're talking about President, not Dean of the Seminary. Mitt, of course, has heretofore barely challenged the premise of such questions, since he's trying to appeal to Christian Right voters.
Romney finally confronted the whole issue today. And it's a peculiar speech, striking roughly the right tone in some places, but leaving intact the false choices that are slowing down his own campaign:
Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president. Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.
Let me assure you that 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.
… Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world. There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind. My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree. [ed. emphasis)
(The irony of the highlighted line is, I assume, not lost on anyone.)
So, he's plainly modeling his speech after JFK's in 1960. However, what's missing is Kennedy's explicit declaration of religion “as a private affair”:
I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.
It is foolish, futile, and undesirable to expect that politicians will be somehow unaffected by their faiths in crafting public policy. For many or most people, their faith is the grounding of their sense of morality, both public and private. But I have been troubled by the willingness of politicians to tout their religious faith as a supposed qualification for office. Even Howard Dean has made clumsy attempts to appeal to evangelicals on religious grounds.
It is not hard to find religious people who are absolutely rotten, or just mediocre. Christianity (particularly Protestantism) rejects “justification” through good works. Faith proves nothing: a public profession of faith in a political campaign is worthless.
It's disappointing, then, to see Romney continue to sell the idea that we still need more public religion:
Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.
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.
I suspect that this language will go over well with most people. And I don't feel too strongly about “ceremonial” religious expression: What's the big deal about “under God” or a public menorah? Pretty small stuff, all in all. But the fact is that such public religious displays are controversial these days precisely because they are not universally held. Our society is pluralistic, and Romney's plea for tolerance is simply not 100% compatible with specific public displays of religion.
As Romney and JFK both state: Values are universal. Religious doctrines are political in a broad sense of the word, subject to similar kinds of cleavages as are manifest in public elections. (Look at the Nicene Creed in light of the theological struggles of the time: It is as political a document as they come.) But it's a very bad direction, having God-talk and professions of faith take the spotlight in the Presidential campaign. It's bad for both religion and the state, because of the necessary hypocrisy of reconciling religious humility and reaching for worldly power.
Here's one notable commentator on public professions of faith:
5“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
PS: I should add that many faith-based groups appeal to broadly shared values using religious language. I think that's totally within bounds. “Let justice roll down like mighty waters”, for instance.