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.

15 thoughts on “Faithiness

  1. Excellent post as usual, Maha. I did go over to the Rude Pundit and boy, is he (?) rude, but is he right. I especially enjoyed his comparison of Kennedy’s speech to Romney’s.

    BTW, I finally understood why you call Brooks “Bobo (the cabbage)”. His book about the bohemian bourgeoisie was mentioned in an article in the “Walrus”, a Canadian magazine. He was sliced and diced, BTW.

  2. Maha,

    As a non-believer I certainly was not offended by Romney’s speech just slightly confused. We have been hearing this religious bullshit from politicians and pundits for years, so the offensiveness has worn off. But I thought he was giving a speech to ensure the Right-wing super-evangelicals that his “magic underwear” won’t get in the way of overturning Roe-v-wade, privatizing everything, and continuing the war on Arabs. I’m sure these high holy righties where glad to hear he has no use for the “faithless” but I’m not sure he convinced them on much else. I can’t see him getting past the fact that he once supported a women’s right to choose, not to mention the “magic underpants”.

  3. Various tools like Peggy Noonan and Hugh Hewitt praised Romney’s speech as second only to the Sermon on the Mount.

    lmao… SO TRUE!

  4. I just read the speech; I did not hear it. What struck me will go past most who are not students of American history. Romney quoted John Adams twice. His selection could hardly have been more appropriate.

    It was in Adams’ administration that the Sedition Act was passed, which prohibited criticism of the governement by or in the press. (The reincarnation of that foul legislation is in the Congress now.) Adams WAS deemed a religous man; his political opponent was vigorously denounced from the pulpit during the election, and that contendor refused to speak of his religous faith, or align himself with a popular denomination. Stubbornly, he defined his candidacy on the ideals he defined in the Declaration of Independence.

    Jefferson pardoned those convicted under the Sedition Act, and refused the trappings of an imperial presidency, which Adams was shaping. Jefferson walked to his inaguration; Adams rode in a regal coach. In countless ways, Jefferson defined presidential democracy as something of and for the people. Adams was well on the way of making Washington a governement of the elite, for the elite.

    Romney chose well, and sadly no Democratic candidate knows enough history to call him for the choice.

    There is a footnote to the story worth noting; the 2 men, Jefferson and Adams, who were close friends durung the Revolutionary war were estranged after the election that Adams lost. In time they resumed a correspondnce and friendssip not unlike Bush the greater has with President Clinton. Fifty years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, on July 4 both men died. It is said that Adams’ last words were ‘Thomas Jefferson lives.’, though in fact, his friend had died only hours before.

  5. I knew I could count on you for a good post on the Romney speech, and you didn’t disappoint. I love the concept of ‘faithiness’, which captures so much of what makes me itch about the right’s religiosity.

  6. To dumpster dive and not come up with a handful of slimy, reeking Cabbage, is just… weird.

    Would you call Brooks Old Line GOP? Doesn’t sound like Mitt’s his candidate. (Yet, anyway.)

    And if Mitt is the nominee, I have to agree with uncledad– I think the evangelical fundies’ view of the LDS Church as a “cult” is going to keep most of them from voting for him. They really take their fingerpointing seriously, as we all know.

  7. Assuming Mitt is their man, selling his connection with the LDS church (or trying to sweep it under the rug) will be every bit as as interesting in 2008, as JFK’s Catholicism was in 1960. In other words, it will be interesting to find out if Mormonism has become sufficiently mainstream so as to not disqualify someone running for President.

    Of course there will be those fundies who will never vote for him, but I suspect they’re a dying breed. And Mitt’s “Club For Greed” friends are doing all they can to kneecap Huckabee, the fundies’ choice.

    “Faithiness” – that captures it. And I’m glad Brooks can get something right.

  8. If Mitt is the Republican candidate, then it won’t matter if the Democratic candidate is black or a woman. There are many more people who will not vote for a Mormon than who will not vote for a woman or a black man. This coming election may not give use the best candidates (which is too bad); but, it may prove very interesting.

  9. Doug Hughes, thanks for the historical perspective. I, too, found it interesting that Romney chose to quote Adams, since one of Jefferson’s quotes about the Sedition Act period has been a solace to me repeatedly during the Bush era: “A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles.” Romney demonstrates that he has no idea what those principles (any principles?) are.

  10. Mr. Hughes I appreciate the historical brief as well (I attended primary school in a failed public system just outside of Chicago). However it isn’t really too surprising that Romney would quote Adams is it? The word “sedition” alone gets a Neocon’s blood flowing. It reminds them that they are on the verge of being able to define a person only by his or her voter card, or more importantly his or her “faithiness”. It seems to me the Right has come to realize that they are running out of steam on all things important. They really only have one thing left to run on. G.O.D. It is a little sad, but will be even worse once the democrats allow themselves to be dragged into this “culture” discussion. So in anticipation of the inevitable I have written the following poem to share with the mahablog:

    Problems: Conservatives can’t admit they have them. Liberals can’t admit they don’t. If we could just get rid of the problem we could all get along swimmingly. Now what did you say the problem was?

  11. Mitt was, indeed, trying to say, “Hey, I’m a Christian, too.” He was pandering to the religious right. He pandered to all religious people. He seeks inclusion and their support. And I worry that he will be successful.
    “Magic underpant’s” are no different from the belief’s of the Catholic and my own Russian Orthodox church in transubtantiation. That at the eucharist, we are taking in of the body and blood of Christ (and no, I don’t beleive that, I’m an agnostic).
    Every religion has its own version of “Magic underpant’s.” That’s what Mitt is banking on. That’s why he talked about the Jewish and Muslim religion’s (and others, as I recall) and what he admired about them. That he excluded non-believer’s and secularist’s is code. He told other believers, “I admire your version of ‘Magic underpant’s.’ Leave mine alone.”
    And thanks, Dough Hughes, for the insight into Adam’s, whom Mitt channeled. Kennedy, instead, channeled Jefferson.
    America was founded as a secular nation. The BS about freedom needing religion and religion needing freedom was truly frightening. Let me ask you Mitt, before America, how did that religion stuff work as far as freedom in the scope of human history? Uhm, not so good, as I read the past.
    Mitt, “The Twit,” had to turn to religion to counter Huck, “The Schmuck.”
    If either of them is elected, theocracy, here we come…. Huck will push for it; Mitt will let it happen.

    Maha, I agree that Mitt is the chosen one for the old GOP. He is now trying to reunite the Republican trifecta of religionism, corporatism, and racism. His corporate standing cannot be questioned. He is now trying to out-God Huck, and out-hate Tancredo.
    What a guy!

  12. God, hate, fear, kill.
    Jesus would be shocked.
    The candidates remind me of a bunch of jocks bidding for a date with Pam Anderson.
    whoever wins will be faced with figuring where fantasy ends and reality begins, followed with disinfectants and a battery of antibiotics. Where does one begin the clean-up?

    Mitt happens………..

  13. erinyes,
    “God, hate, fear, kill.
    Jesus would be shocked.”
    Not their Jesus. He would give his Sermon on the Mount with thumbscrew’s, a water-boarding kit, and electric testicular clamp’s.
    The right will tell you that, if only Jesus could have wiretapped, he’d have known about Judas and the silver…

    And, I hate to argue, it ain’t Pam that they want, it’s Joe and Jane Doe.

    Thanks, I love “Mitt happens!!!”

  14. The big-money wing of the GOP might be smtten with Romney, but the Fundies aren’t gonna be happy with him as a nominee. If he is, expect the Fundies to sit this election out.

    They would rather have someone like Rudy, a hypocrite who pays lip service to their beliefs while he breaks 8 or 9 commandments on a daily basis, than a Satan-worshipping member of the Mormon cult/church. Might as well nominate a bomb-throwing Moslem.

    If the GOP wants the Fundie’s support, they’ll have to at least nominate a mackeral-snapping Cath-a-lick or maybe a Christ-killing Jew. On second thought, forget the Jews.

    After all, this is a “Christian” nation, isn’t it? We might “tolerate” other (i.e. wrong) religions, but we ain’t letting them run things.

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