Thursday, December 06, 2007

After much debate among members of his staff, former Michigan Mitt Romney has finally given the speech many people thought he would never make, and which he fervently hoped he wouldn't have to make. Such is the power of polls that show another candidate, especially a believing Christian, nipping at his heels in Iowa.

Romney's comments drew many raves and some criticism. I think on balance that it was the speech he had to give, taking Mike Huckabee's surge off the front page for at least awhile and giving Romney the opportunity, when asked by the media henceforth about his religious views, to blow them off, referring questioners to his remarks of today. All in all, a good day for a faltering, if leading, campaign.

Flanked by several flags at the George Bush Presidential library and introduced by the former President, Romney appeared "Presidential," though in that venue, Pee Wee Herman, or even Rudolph Giuliani, would appear Presidential. This impression was enhanced with soaring rhetoric, including "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." That's a great line- everyone figures he or she is going to heaven and who hasn't been moved by America's finest architecture, churches with their steeples?

Romney effectively, if disingenuously, set up a favorite Republican straw man. He claimed "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."

Not surprisingly, the candidate never explained who "they" are, other than to refer to "some." There is a Republican, or conservative, myth that this threat comes from the public sector, as if the federal government has been taken over by some rogue element of radical secularists. But no one has banished religion, or even Christianity, from the public domain or from public life. No law, no statute, no governmental regulation requires Sears, JC Penney, or even your local bakery to turn Christmas- or rather the "holiday"- into an orgy of commercialism. It is the private, not the public, sector, chasing the holy grail of profit, which has turned this season into a faith-less void which Romney, and so many Republicans, decry. But government, ever the rhetorical enemy of the GOP, is a far more convenient target than private interests, source of campaign largesse and object of Republican idolatry.

I could go on criticizing Romney's remarks, such as: the assurance that "any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me," suggesting that he cannot abide a non-believer; the astonishing claim that "freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom," by someone otherwise noting of western Europe, "the churches themselves seem to be withering away"; and of the nation's founders, "for they, when our nation faced its greatest peril, sought the blessings of the Creator," though our nation's founders probably had more in common with today's agnostics than with the Christian right.

But Romney's speechwriters cleverly, and seamlessly, wove a patriotic speech into what was billed as an explanation of how the candidate's faith would inform his Presidency. One mention of the word "Mormon," a fleeting reference to his religious beliefs ("I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind"), but an emphasis on what Americans like to believe are shared values. How effectively ironic: a speech pretending to be about religion, flattering the American people as peculiarly religious and faith-driven, and virtually devoid of religious content.

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