Mitt Romney's "Mormon" speech must have been awful; Chris Matthews loved it. Clearly, I'm not the target audience for this sort of thing so it's perhaps unsurprising that I found it entirely unpersuasive and, in places, quite appalling. Some immediate thoughts...
It was nice of Governor Romney to concede that jihadist terrorists are "worse" than Europeans who don't share the American brand of religion, but really it's insulting for him to even make the comparison. I didn't know we were also the enemy. Even if the terrorists are "infinitely worse" it's significant that the two be bracketed together as examples of the twin perils facing America.
Others are better placed to comment upon the theological aspects of this speech, but Romney's apparent belief that all religions are just the same here does endorse an odd element of the modern day American religious experience: doctrine is immaterial, all that matters is that you believe in God.
"I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims. As I travel across the country and see our towns and cities, I am always moved by the many houses of worship with their steeples, all pointing to heaven, reminding us of the source of life's blessings.
But at some point this happy-clappy sentiment must curdle into nonsense: when did choosing a religion become no more significant than choosing a football team? At some level protestants have to believe that Roman Catholics are seriously misguided, otherwise there's precious little point in being, well, a protestant. Unless one is of the view that Mormonism involves the hoodwinking of 12 million people who've signed up to follow what was originally a lunatic personality cult, then the true Mormon must, at some level, believe that protestants and catholics are followers of an incomplete faith. If that's not the case, then whats the point of Mormonism?
As for a religious test? Well, please. Romney clearly believes there is one: you could not, reading this speech, be an unbeliever and run for President. Again, Romney's insistence that all faiths be admitted into what he grandiosely termed a "symphony of faith" leaves no room for the skeptic or the unbeliever.
Then there's this, taken from the excerpts released in advance of his speech:
“Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.”
This is nonsense on stilts, as even a cursory examination of Saudi Arabia or the Netherlands might reveal. But again, it's interesting to note that Romney must - if there's any logic or consistency to his views - believe that freedom is withering in Europe. Yet it's also the case that many, perhaps most, American conservatives believe that Europeans are far too tolerant of religion - at least when that religion is islam. So which is it?
Then there's this terribly confused passage:
“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.
Well, since polls show that an atheist has no chance of becoming President I think we may say that the threat posed by a militant secularism is over-played. But if religion has a place in public life - by which one may fairly mean the affairs of state - it is hard to see quite where Romney plans to divide church from state. Then again, he can't: after all this speech was supposed to convince skeptics that everything Romney does is motivated by his religious convictions (you just shouldn't ask him what those convictions are: that would be mean and unfair and un-American, you see. though if you think Romney would extend that courtesy to, say, a Muslim candidate then you're a generous person...)
Anyway, if secularism is a religion then apparently it's the only one that isn't welcome to play in the symphony of faith.
O tempora, o mores of course: not for the first time, one pines for Ronald Reagan's speeches. The Gipper of course wasn't much of a believer himself - though he said the right words - but he never thought he had to compensate for this by demanding a religious test for candidates for office the way Romney has done this morning.
I fear, mind you, that Romney may benefit from this speech even as I rather agree with those who said he should never have given it.