I’m coming a bit late to the analysis of Mitt Romney’s Big Religion Speech, being in travel purgatory much of the day, but the reaction is almost as interesting as the speech.
Nobody much denies that it was well-staged and well-delivered, but that’s pretty much where the agreement ends.
Hugh Hewitt regards the speech as “on every level…a masterpiece,” a “brilliant exposition of the American political theory of faith and freedom,” and even says anyone who doesn’t agree with him about this “is not to be trusted as an analyst,” a remark whose arrogance matches the hyperbolic tone of his whole post.
Nobody else I read got quite that hyterical in praise, but quite a few folks thought Romney did a good job of threading the needle by avoiding some obvious pitfalls in addressing this subject. He didn’t do a purely anodyne and impersonal tribute to “faith” without any specificity. He didn’t try to make the case for Mormonism. He didn’t (God forbid for a Republican!) suggest that religion should be irrelevant in politics.
At least a couple of conservative commentators were a lot less enthusiastic. The Editors of National Review pointed out that Romney was just wrong in asserting that those who wanted him to justify his faith were guilty of violating the constitutional ban on religious tests for holding office. David Frum quickly catches the contradiction between Mitt’s aggressive confession of belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and his argument that specific Mormon beliefs about the nature of Jesus were somehow off-limits to discussion, and sugggested, accurately I think, that many conservative evangelicals wouldn’t buy it.
On the Left, there’s a lot of justifiable attention being paid to the obvious point that Romney again and again identified religious freedom in a way that excluded the irreligious. “Religion requires freedom, and freedom requires religion,” was one of the speech’s big catchphrases. Thomas Jefferson is surely rolling in his grave.
In that respect, Michelle Cottle at the Plank is very impressed, in a horrified sort of way, by Romney’s phrase, “The religion of Secularism” in deploring aggressive church-state separation. Actually, this has been a hoary meme of the Christian Right for decades, central to its claim that any limitation on government support for religion is itself a form of religious oppression by the Church of Secularism (BTW, Romney hit a lick on another such hoary convention, the identification of the anti-abortion movement with abolitionism and civil rights as essential faith-based crusades for human rights).
And that’s why of all the reactions I’ve read, Ezra Klein’s seems to get at the essential point most directly:
What Romney’s speech today seeks to do is construct a new “us versus them.” Where Huckabee was having some success making the us equal “Christians” and the them equal “Mormons,” Romney is making the us equal “believers” and the them equal “atheists.” The bet is that voters hate “secularists” more than they’re unsettled by Mormons, and that if Romney can set himself up as the foremost opponent of atheists in public life, that will be more important than precisely which version of Jesus he believes in, or how many planets he’ll be given to rule after his death. It’s a speech calling for tolerance, that hinges on a public display of intolerance. It’s classic Romney, and totally disgusting.
Before the speech, I suggested that Romney’s best bet politically was to do everything possible to establish solidarity between Mormons and conservative evangelicals as comrades in culture warfare with secularists and even “liberal” Christians. I also doubted he could pull that off. But it looks like he at least made an eloquent effort in that direction.