Friday, December 07, 2007

Faith v. Everything Else

I have been challenged to respond to Mitt Romney's "Religion in America" speech, and so I must take up the gauntlet, despite the fact others have already done so far better than I can hope to manage. Still, a challenge is a challenge.

On the purely political front, let me just say that, when you've lost David Brooks, (addendum: and Peggy Noonan; it's worse than I thought) you've pretty much laid a political stink bomb. Romney was clearly going for the LCD of the GOP, and whether he got it or not, he seems to have alienated almost everyone else in the Party. But the title given to Brooks essay makes for a pretty good starting point on this entire issue.

First, Matthew Dowd is not only wrong but completely clueless on the public, political issue of "faith" (as he defines it). I know I'm jumping around to go from Brooks to Dowd, but stay with me a moment, it will all make sense. For Dowd, faith is apparently about "Finding an authentic place to call home." Shades of Kierkegaard and self-actualization rise to gibber and moan at the implications of that, but leave them be. What Dowd wants to declare is what Romney wants to declare: that "faith" is this "thing" that we all have, and most especially voters, and politicians ignore that "thing" at their peril. Dowd's recommendation could be tailor-made for someone advising Romney to give his "Ich bein ein Believer" speech:

Before you read much further, here's the bottom line: as one looks ahead to the primaries and the general election, the candidate who best understands the importance of faith in households across America and ultimately demonstrates authenticity will likely be the one taking the oath of office in January of 2009.
Advice which can be summarized as: "Sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made."

Should we talk about faith as a set of concepts to which one must rigidly adhere? What answer, then, Eliphaz, do you have for Job? Should we talk of faith as what is in your heart? Then even God is blind to that:

The heart is deceitful above any other thing,
desperately sick; who can fathom it?
I, the Lord, search the mind
and test the heart,
requiting each one for his conduct
and as his deeds deserve--Jeremiah 17:9-10
Words ominous enough to chill the blood of the most self-righteous of us. Should we talk about faith, then, as a set of common beliefs, known from our actions? I will tell you about my friend, by his actions the most Christian person I have ever known, but by his beliefs, a committed and confirmed atheist.

Tell me, then, how we will measure this thing "faith" and how we will appeal to the voters on the basis of it?

Maybe Matthew 6 should be our guide:

Be careful not to parade your religion before others; if you do, no reward awaits you with your Father in heaven.

So when you give alms, do not announce it with a flourish of trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Truly I tell you: they have their reward already. But when you do give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing; your good deed must be secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

Again, when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at street corners for everyone to see them. Truly I tell you: they have their reward. But when you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
Oops! Well, I guess not. Although we should notice Jesus does not say there: "Your religion is a private matter! Keep it to yourself!" What he says, quite plainly, is: "Your piety should be a source of humility, not of pride. Otherwise you, like the hypocrites, will have your reward." Which reward will be the honor of your fellows who, of course, when the time comes, will welcome you into the eternal homes.

Probably at this point, I should comment on the text of what Romney said. But that has, as I mentioned, been done better by others. I'm more intrigued by the fact Romney thought this speech needed to be made. You may think this is a new wrinkle in American political culture. But, of course, the election of Kennedy was within my lifetime, and I remember that one controversy of his candidacy was his membership in the "Church of Rome." But the fear of an anti-believer in the White House is a very old one:

The Bible would be cast into a bonfire, our holy worship changed into a dance of Jacobin phrensy, our wives and daughters dishonored, and our sons converted into the disciples of Voltaire and the dragoons of Marat.

Yale College President Timothy Dwight, on the possibility of [Thomas] Jefferson's election
It is, of course, an issue of exclusion; which is David Brooks' complaint, although theologically Brooks' argument is an ignorant one. Theology doesn't really rest on determing the distinction between the truth in my favored doctrine and the falsehoods in yours. It is actually much closer to "faith seeking understanding," although I prefer to see it as yet another tool available in a search for truth. It isn't the only set of tools, but it is certainly an abuse of them to use theological principles to establish what is right about what I want to believe, and what is wrong about what you were taught. Ecumenism is not as well advanced as it could be, but at least in theological circles it is certainly more advanced than that.

Not according to Richard John Neuhaus, however; as Brooks notes. But is faith really being victimized in America? Well, I suppose, if you presume faith is entitled to a privileged position from which you must further suppose it has fallen. This is no place to engage Neuhaus's thesis, except to say I categorically reject the idea that the faithful in America face any kind of persecution at all. As far as I can tell, the only faithful being attacked by the government are those with a "liberal slant." If there are mega-churches suffering, surely the "Restoration of Religious Freedom Act" afforded them some relief; and surely they aren't showing the strain, even of Sen. Grassley's questions. If the faithful are social pariahs, I see no evidence of that, either. From all I hear, the churches are better and more publicly attended here than in Europe. If there is a "counter-religion of secularism" (whatever that is; it smacks of the Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, to be honest; and today no church can claim to have the social or political control the Roman Catholic church had when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg), it is surely stronger in Europe than in America. As I say, I can't take on Neuhaus' thesis just from Brooks' column, but the evidence for "victimhood" looks weak indeed, and those crying over their lost authority are, to my eye, crying crocodile tears.

What, then, do we make of the reasons behind Romney's speech? Clearly it was meant to appeal to the base of the Republican party, a base stirred only by pious appeals to broadly defined and vaguely adhered to religious sentiments, which leaves him neither religious nor secular. In this, David Brooks is absolutely right:

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.
Religion is not about what everyone else believes, although it is usually understood and practiced that way. But religion has endured because it is about restraints on what we do. Such restraints are not necessarily burdensome or even a source of social evil. Remove the social restraints we all live with, and you have the chaos of Iraq. Which is not to say those restraints either properly or necessarily come from religion. Indeed, in a post-religious world, religious restraints may properly only apply to the individuals who choose to live by them. Such constraints and burdens are never anodyne, or politically irrelevant. But neither are they balm to be poured on public sensibilities in order to make a candidate more attractive to a group of voters.

There will always be voters who prefer such syrup on their political flapjacks. But such stuff is artificial, and bland, and being neither hot nor cold nor even tasting of the maples, we should all spit it out of our mouths, into the faces of the people who want to sell it to us. Faith is not a public commodity to be traded for votes or political support. Why did Romney give this speech? Because he's a politician. It may well be this analysis is right:

Our analysis of thousands of public communications across eight decades shows that U.S. politics today is defined by a calculated, demonstrably public religiosity unlike anything in modern history. Consider one example.
Which is not to say this is a good thing. As that column concludes:

In 1960, JFK sought to be commander in chief. Romney just made his case to be pastor in chief. It's good for his presidential chances, but bad for America.
The key point there is the "calculated, demonstrably public religiosity." That kind of piety has a long history in America, but not a distinguished one. Which means that it, like the poor, will always be with us. But it also means that I, as a Christian, have an obligation to care about the latter, but not very much about the former. The former is a political fashion. It will eventually wear out its welcome. In the meantime, it is Advent; and the stories of Advent remind me who is coming, and what I should do to prepare for him:

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"
In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."--Luke 3:7-11

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