Secular Values Are American Values
In Michigan, Tuesday, when asked what he would do as president to protect religious liberty, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney claimed that President Obama has not been sensitive to religious freedom, saying that the administration has "fought against religion" because those the President "hangs around with" have a "secular agenda." Romney told the audience that he would be more sensitive to the issue.
How a president would protect religious freedom is an important question, but Romney's answer sheds light on some alarming misconceptions about what religious freedom is, why it is important, and what really threatens it.
Some have already addressed the underlying assertion that secularism somehow threatens religious liberty and use of secularism as a synonym for anti-religious. It is "disgraceful" - to borrow a word from the Obama campaign - to see nominees for the presidency who distort the meaning of secularism, ignoring the importance that secular values have played in defining the United States as a nation. Secularism simply provides for religious tolerance in a pluralistic society of many faiths - and none.
Just as troubling is the confusion that Romney displayed, within a single sentence, about why religious freedom is important. While addressing the crowd in Michigan, he commented that he "[is] someone who has understood very personally the significance of religious tolerance," seemingly referring to his status as a religious minority, being a Mormon. In that moment, his reference to tolerance seemed to show a true understanding of religious freedom.
However, Romney went on in that very same sentence to remark on the importance of, "the right to one's own conscience." This has become a catch phrase, it is code used by the deeply religious to mean "we should be able to choose not to recognize certain civil liberties of others," which is an egregious misrepresentation of the intention of religious freedom. By invoking their terminology, Romney is promoting privileged exemptions to insular religious groups from participating responsibly in our diverse society.
For its part, the Obama campaign called Romney's attack "disgraceful" and shifted the conversation by focusing on how President Obama is seeking to improve the economy. Though I understand the importance of addressing the very real economic issues the nation faces, I am disappointed that the Obama campaign's response did not clarify that secular values are American values, and how they protect religious freedom.
I hate to see the discussion sidestepped this way. Does the President agree that secularism is bad, or does he think it's unpopular? Either way, allowing a distorted view of religious freedom to continue to be the only view presented is dangerous. No matter how wrong or unpopular, without opposition, this message is bound to gain more credibility and acceptance.
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