David Brooks has a column in today’s New York Times titled “Faith vs. the Faithless,” about Mitt Romney’s religion speech. I plunged into it with the same enthusiasm I have for dumpster diving in really bad neighborhoods. But I was pleasantly surprised that Brooks actually had a glimmer of insight.

When this country was founded, James Madison envisioned a noisy public square with different religious denominations arguing, competing and balancing each other’s passions. But now the landscape of religious life has changed. Now its most prominent feature is the supposed war between the faithful and the faithless. Mitt Romney didn’t start this war, but
speeches like his both exploit and solidify this divide in people’s minds. The supposed war between the faithful and the faithless has exacted casualties.

The first casualty is the national community. Romney described a community yesterday. Observant Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Jews and Muslims are inside that community. The nonobservant are not. There was not even a perfunctory sentence showing respect for the nonreligious.

I’ve read the speech. It not only disses the nonreligious (about which the Rude Pundit gets really rude); it also leaves out anyone who isn’t a monotheist. I guess Mitt isn’t worried about losing the Buddhist vote.

As for the alleged war on religion, Joe Conason rightly points out that it’s mostly been the religious fighting it:

Phonies like Huckabee and Romney complain constantly about the supposed religious intolerance of secular liberals. But the truth is that liberals — including agnostics and atheists — have long been far more tolerant of religious believers in office than the other way around. They helped elect a Southern Baptist named Jimmy Carter to the presidency in 1976, and today they support a Mormon named Harry Reid who is the Senate majority leader — which makes him the highest-ranking Mormon officeholder in American history. Nobody in the Democratic Party has displayed the slightest prejudice about Reid’s religion.

And an editorial in today’s New York Times gets to the bottom of why Romney had to make the speech in the first place:

Even by the low standards of this campaign, it was a distressing moment and just what the nation’s founders wanted to head off with the immortal words of the First Amendment: A presidential candidate cowed into defending his way of worshiping God by a powerful minority determined to impose its religious tenets as a test for holding public office. …

…Mr. Romney was not there to defend freedom of religion, or to champion the indisputable notion that belief in God and religious observance are longstanding parts of American life. He was trying to persuade Christian fundamentalists in the Republican Party, who do want to impose their faith on the Oval Office, that he is sufficiently Christian for them to support his bid for the Republican nomination. No matter how dignified he looked, and how many times he quoted the founding fathers, he could not disguise that sad fact.

And to do that, Romney evoked the common enemy of all God Nazis — secularists. As Steve M. says —

His basic message was “Well, yeah, I’m a Mormon, but LOOK — OVER THERE! IT’S A DIRTY FILTHY ATHEIST!”

But let’s go on to David Brooks’s next paragraph, which is astonishing, coming from David Brooks:

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.

The difference between a tribe and a mere interest group is that tribes are something people incorporate into their identities. The group becomes an extension of the self under the guardianship of ego. But the trick with religion-as-tribe is that one can be a fierce and devoted member of the tribe without being particularly religious, and vice versa. If we could travel through religious history we could dredge up busloads of great theologians and spiritual teachers who would tell us that ego attachment is death to sincere religious devotion.

Another aspect of religion-as-tribe in America is that, increasingly, sectarian distinctions are sluicing together into one vague and amorphous All-American Christianity. Understanding of doctrine becomes less important than loyalty to doctrine and identification with the tribe. Pastor Dan speaks of “faithiness”

Romney’s appeal was thus not to faith but to “faithiness,” to steal from Stephen Colbert. He didn’t want to appeal to the specifics of belief, because those would have worked against him, but to the quality of being perceived as a person of faith. Brooks got that much right. It is a pernicious tactic, and one that is bound to be tried over and over again as candidate after candidate tries to proclaim themselves the leader of faith and the free world without alienating too many swing voters.

It is a pernicious tactic because, even as Romney paid homage to religious tolerance, the point of his speech was to ingratiate himself with the intolerant and thereby reinforce their intolerance.

There’s no question that there’s a huge block of voters who think they are entitled to demand religious tests for public office. We must never forget that separating political authority from religious revelation made modern liberal society possible. The same wall that separates church from state also separates us from sectarian tyranny.

There’s something else that struck me about the Romney speech. It’s becoming apparent that Mitt is the candidate Old Line GOP party insiders want to nominate. John Dickerson writes,

When Mitt Romney gave his speech on religion in American life Thursday in College Station, Texas, he brought everything but the presidential seal. Introduced by George Herbert Walker Bush, the last popular Republican president, he stood in front of a row of American flags and faced a bank of cameras worthy of a celebrity murder trial. Leading up to the address, his campaign had released pictures of his arduous speechwriting process, exactly as the White House does before the real president gives the State of the Union address.

Various tools like Peggy Noonan and Hugh Hewitt praised Romney’s speech as second only to the Sermon on the Mount. This is the GOP establishment speaking. They don’t like McCain; I suspect they’ve come to realize what a loose cannon Rudy Giuliani is; and Huckabee is bad for business. Mitt’s their guy. He’s starting to look like the GOP nominee to me.