Mitt Romney’s Troubling Views on Religion in Government

The U.S. Constitution rightfully mandates that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

But former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who announced yesterday that he will again seek the Republican Party’s nomination for president, still faces many questions about his Mormon faith and the impact it might have on his decisions in office. When he last ran for president, Romney delivered a major speech (video here) intended to quell possible concerns about his religion, which polling suggests would prevent many Americans from casting a ballot for Romney or any other Mormon. 

By giving such an address, Romney drew unavoidable comparisons to John F. Kennedy, our nation’s first Catholic president, who in 1960 famously told a group of ministers that, if elected, he would give no special privileges to his personal religion, and that his decisions in office would in no way be guided by the Catholic Church or its papal hierarchy.

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” Kennedy declared.

Speaking almost 50 years later, Romney also promised to not take orders from his religious higher-ups:

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. […] I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.

But, alas, Mitt Romney is no Jack Kennedy.

While the former governor said that no one religion should dictate our laws, he made it very clear that he believes religion in general should play a role in state affairs, saying that, “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. […] Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.”

Put another way, Romney believes in freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion.

But it gets worse. From there, Romney’s comments veered off into inaccurate, unhistorical theocratic ramblings:

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.'

Where to begin?

1. If Romney believes (wrongly) that secularism is a “religion,” shouldn’t it deserve the same protection he earlier promised to other religions?

2. America’s Founders did not insert “under God” into the pledge or place “In God We Trust” on our currency. Those phrases were both added to our national lexicon during the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War and anti-Soviet hysteria, when crusading members of Congress sought ways to distinguish Americans from “godless communists.”

3. As numerous historians and Supreme Court decisions have affirmed, the Founders established the United States as a secular nation, where, as Justice Hugo Black wrote in 1947, the “wall [between church and state] must be kept high and impregnable.” That means no special recognition of Romney’s – or anyone else’s – “God.”

Twice in his 2007 speech Romney quoted President John Adams. I wonder what the presidential hopeful would think of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which Adams signed, and which clearly stated that, “The United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”? Because, in myth and reality, Americans are a diverse, multicultural, and pluralistic people. Our nation is composed of many types of Christians, but also Buddhists, Sikhs, Wiccans, polytheists, and millions more who lead good and moral lives without religion or belief in gods.    

Romney himself said that, “Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.” But by falsely claiming that freedom requires religion, and that secularists are “wrong” to support the secular America envisioned by our Founders, Romney violated his own prescription: He voiced intolerance for a belief system that he disagrees with.

One year before Romney delivered that address, a Gallup poll showed that 17 percent of Americans would not vote for a “generally well-qualified candidate for president who happened to be Mormon.” An earlier poll found that 53 percent would not vote for an atheist. If Romney really hopes to serve all Americans as president, he might want to try reaching out to constituents, like atheists, who he disagrees with, but who could relate to the social intolerance Mormons have experienced – and he, in many ways, still faces.

Condemning the secular government that allows every American to practice his/her own beliefs freely, while insisting that your “God” receives special treatment, is not a good way to do that.

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