Romney flunks a religious test

December 10, 2007|By STEVE CHAPMAN

Mitt Romney is worried about religious intolerance. He fears religious and nonreligious people will unite to punish him because of his Mormon faith. He thinks it would be much more in keeping with America's noblest traditions if Mormons and other believers joined together to punish people of no faith.

Last week, Mr. Romney announced that even if it costs him the White House, his Mormonism is non-negotiable. That came as a relief to those who suspected he would defuse the issue by undergoing a Methodist baptism.

Like John F. Kennedy, who said in 1960 that the presidency should not be "tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group," Mr. Romney said there should be no religious test for this office. "A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith," he said.

Rejected because of his faith, no. But rejected for his lack of faith? That's another question. Mr. Romney evinces a powerful aversion to skeptics. "We need to have a person of faith lead the country," he said in February, which sounds like a religious test to me.

In case anyone doubts his inhospitable stance toward freethinkers, scoffers and Sunday-morning layabeds, his speech confirmed it. Nowhere did he make the slightest effort to suggest that anyone unsure of the existence of God has anything to contribute to our democratic dialogue. In fact, he went out of his way to denounce decadent European societies "too busy or too `enlightened' to ... kneel in prayer."

When he said, "We do not insist on a single strain of religion - rather, we welcome our nation's symphony of faith," he drew a line that excludes those professing no creed. Zoroastrians and Taoists in, agnostics out.

As he sees it, any American who doesn't worship at least one god is eating away at our democratic structure like a hungry termite. He quoted John Adams: "Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people." Mr. Romney went further: "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. ... Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone."

He ignores evidence that the framers thought otherwise. The Constitution they so painstakingly drafted contains not a single mention of the Almighty - unlike the Articles of Confederation, which it replaced. A 1796 treaty, signed by that very same John Adams and ratified by the Senate, stipulated that the U.S. government "is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

If the founders thought religion was indispensable to a free republic, why does the national charter say, "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office"? Wouldn't it have made more sense to include a religious test?

Mr. Romney's theory that faith is essential to liberty suggests he has yet to visit the modern world. He doesn't try to explain countries such as Germany, France and Norway - free democracies where most people no longer believe in God. Religion is not exactly synonymous with personal freedom in, say, the Muslim world. Organized Christianity once coexisted comfortably with, and often sponsored, oppression in Europe and elsewhere.

The former Massachusetts governor makes equally imaginative claims about those who champion church-state separation. He believes they "are intent on establishing a new religion in America - the religion of secularism." Oh? You would look long and hard to find any secularist or civil libertarian who thinks the government should officially espouse atheism or encourage Americans to abandon religion.

Believers insist on keeping "In God We Trust" on our currency. Where are the nonbelievers who want to replace it with "There Is No God"? Secularists don't expect the government to take their side - only to practice neutrality. They think 1) all Americans should be free to practice the religion they choose, and 2) none should have the active assistance of the government.

But neutrality between belief and nonbelief is something Mr. Romney can't abide. He thinks the government must be firmly and vocally on the side of religion. Only when it comes to Mormonism vs. other religions does he recognize the value of neutrality as a principle. Isn't that convenient?

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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