Was Romney's Speech Too Clever By Half?

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David Brooks makes a great point about the Romney speech, which he deemed probably successful but ultimately cynical:

The second casualty of the faith war is theology itself. In rallying the armies of faith against their supposed enemies, Romney waved away any theological distinctions among them with the brush of his hand. In this calculus, the faithful become a tribe, marked by ethnic pride, a shared sense of victimization and all the other markers of identity politics.

In Romney’s account, faith ends up as wishy-washy as the most New Age-y secularism. In arguing that the faithful are brothers in a common struggle, Romney insisted that all religions share an equal devotion to all good things. Really? Then why not choose the one with the prettiest buildings?

In order to build a voting majority of the faithful, Romney covered over different and difficult conceptions of the Almighty. When he spoke of God yesterday, he spoke of a bland, smiley-faced God who is the author of liberty and the founder of freedom. There was no hint of Lincoln’s God or Reinhold Niebuhr’s God or the religion most people know the religion that imposes restraints upon on the passions, appetites and sinfulness of human beings. He wants God in the public square, but then insists that theological differences are anodyne and politically irrelevant.

Romney’s job yesterday was to unite social conservatives behind him. If he succeeded, he did it in two ways. He asked people to rally around the best traditions of America’s civic religion. He also asked people to submerge their religious convictions for the sake of solidarity in a culture war without end.

I'm actually somewhat more sympathetic than Brooks--celebrating (or even defending) theological differences seems like a lot to ask of a Mormon politician--but I think this is a pretty fair assessment of what we saw yesterday.

Also don't miss David Kusnet's terrific analysis of the speech. Key passages:

Forty-seven years later, Romney began his speech similarly. He ticked off a list of current problems--"radical violent Islam," "an emerging China," "overuse of foreign oil"--before taking a hard right turn with this statement: "There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us," and then making clear that he disagreed with the benighted "some." From the 1960 campaign through Watergate, attacking an unnamed "some" was a favored rhetorical device of JFK's rival, Richard Nixon. And, when it comes to arguing that religious issues shouldn't be part of presidential campaigns, Romney's "some" includes Kennedy himself.

While Kennedy dismissed concerns about his Catholicism, Romney challenged yet another "some" who "wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate's religion that are appropriate" His answer, in stark opposition to the Constitution's forbiddance of religious tests for public office: "I believe there are. And I will answer them today." ...

But having just spurned those who consider it illegitimate to ask if Mormon candidates are Christians, Romney proceeded to defy yet another "some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines." Such questions--but presumably not questions about Jesus Christ's divinity--would "enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution." Romney's listeners might be forgiven if they conclude that questions that might embarrass him are illegitimate but not those that might marginalize a Muslim like Keith Ellison or a Jew like Russ Feingold. Where Chris Matthews hears "greatness" in Romney, "some" might settle for consistency.

--Noam Scheiber

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