13 December 2007

Romney and Europe on Religion

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is working hard to disavow any benefit of the doubt that secular liberals like myself might have allowed him.

Europe’s cathedrals are indeed “so inspired, so grand, so empty,” as Mitt Romney, a Mormon, put it last week in charting his vision of a faith-based presidency. . . . Romney . . . was dismissive of European societies “too busy or too ‘enlightened’ to venture inside and kneel in prayer.” He thereby pointed to what has become the principal transatlantic cultural divide. . . .

George W. Bush’s presidency has been fed by his allusions to divine guidance — “the hand of a just and faithful God” in shaping events, or his trust in “the ways of Providence.” . . . But Bush is no transient phenomenon; he is the expression of a new American religiosity. Romney’s speech and the rapid emergence of the anti-Darwin Baptist minister Mike Huckabee as a rival suggest how estranged the American zeitgeist is from the European.

At a time when growing numbers of Americans identify themselves as born-again evangelicals, and creationism is no joke, Romney’s essentially pitted the faithful against the faithless while attempting to merge Mormonism in mainstream Christianity. Where Kennedy said he believed in a “president whose religious views are his own private affair,” Romney pledged not to “separate us from our religious heritage.” . . . Romney allows no place in the United States for atheists. He opines that, “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” Yet secular Sweden is free while religious Iran is not. . . . Romney rejects the “religion of secularism,” of which Europe tends to be proud.

From Roger Cohen at The New York Times.

Cohen speculates that "the devastating European experience of religious war" was critical in the move by Europeans and the Founders from religious devotion. But a more plausible theory is the common place observation that religiosity has died in Europe precisely because the state embraced the religious heritage of its people with an established church. The protection afforded the church by the state in Europe eliminated the need of the people to organize to sustain their religion.

Religious activity is an ironic little beast that thrives most when the culture that it is part and parcel of is threatened. More than irony drives the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to which Romney belongs simultaneously has a history of being one of the most fervently suppressed of any religious denomination in the United States, and is one of the most rapidly growing and institutionally healthy religious bodies in the country.

Cohen is also wrong is describing the phenomena he is observing as symptomatic of "the American zeitgeist." There are many deeply religious Americans. But, the phenomena is geographically and culturally discrete. In the American South, in Colorado Springs, in farm country, and in the remaining black neighborhoods that have not been wholly abandoned by the black middle class, the spirit of the age is guided by an evangelical faith. All but one of these geo-cultural regions is firmly a part of the Republican camp to which a candidate seeking that party's nomination must appeal.

In the other party in this country, the one that is not fighting for its political life right now, the "non-Christian left" is a core constituency. The ranks of the non-religious have belatedly grown more in the last few decades than at any other time in our history since the immediate aftermath of the American revolution. Even among those who identify with a religion, growing numbers are not Christians. Atheists are increasingly coming out and embracing their beliefs publicly. Even those who aren't necessarily non-believers themselves fear what conservative Christians in power would do to them. Fear of theocrats is a major reason that much of the Democratic base invests their time, money and talents in the party.

Of course, many Democrats are faithful Christians and some Democrats, particularly the party's immigrant, black and Hispanic constituencies are frequently enthusiastically religious and often have an evangelical bent.

Immigrant communities have always had, and probably always will have, vibrant churches, which serve as one of only a few authentic and powerful ties to the old country.

The Christianity of most blacks in America is very different in practice and its social gospel from the Christianity practiced by Southern whites. Those differences deeply influence the political attitudes of those who attend those churches. But, the two similar expressions of faith have common origins, and both differ profoundly from the liturgical religious traditions of whites in the North who belong to mainline churches more directly descended from the European establishment churches.

Obama, incidentally, is one of the few African-Americans in the United States who is a member of a mainline predominantly white Christian church, the United Church of Christ, after having had a largely secular childhood. The religious heritages of Hillary Clinton and Edwards are probably closer to those of the typical black American than those of Obama. I personally have more in common with Obama culturally than almost any other candidate of either party, despite the fact that our skin colors differ.

While Latin America is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, evangelical Christianity is growing like wild fire there and immigrants to the United States from Latin America as disproportionately evangelicals. And, even Hispanic immigrants who are Catholic share the universal fervor of immigrant communities for the ties the church provides to their heritage abroad. This is why the Roman Catholic church in the United States is seeing stable to slightly growing membership numbers, despite serious declines in their Anglo ranks.

But, those Democrats who aren't afraid to live in an officially evangelical Christian country, still fear that they would be disadvantaged in a nation run by people who share the animus towards their particular group often associated with the culture out of which conservative Christianity sprouts. White evangelical Christians are the direct and recent cultural descendants of the segregationists. The rhetoric of Republican concerns about immigration is deeply intertwined with only thinly veiled racism. Minority fears of Republican rule are well founded.

While Romney's rhetoric about the threat of secularism closely echoes that of the current Roman Catholic Pope, almost certainly not accidentally, given that Romney hails from heavily Catholic Massachusetts, other evangelicals are open and nasty in their contempt for the Catholic church. These criticisms have grown so intense and the association between evangelicals and the descriptor "Christian" has grown so strong, that many teen aged Catholics, confused by this situation, are uncomfortable describing themselves as "Christians" because it could lead an uninformed outsider to think that they are something that they are not.

Many Democrats I know are afraid of Romney because he is a Mormon. They shouldn't be. They should be afraid of Romney because he is a theocrat at heart.

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