August 12, 2012 · 2 Comments
By Marie Burns:
I had no intention of turning my column into the New York Times Religious eXaminer, but once again it is Sunday, and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is on the pulpit. In today’s sermon, Douthat laments Mitt Romney’s failure to bring his Mormon religion to the political table:
By trying to insulate his campaign from the things that make his faith seem alien, he’s cut himself off from things that make his life story impressive, and his message compelling. If his personality seems hollow and his philosophy insincere, maybe it’s because he’s hidden the story of his people, and the deepest longings of his heart.
Frankly, I have never noticed the carve-out in the First Amendment for High Holy Political Season, but perhaps a majority of politicians are privy to it. Although mainstream and evangelical Christian candidates are probably the worst offenders, the tendency to wear their gods on their sleeves is not reserved for those of the Christian persuasion. Sanctimonious professions of piety were seldom more blatantly displayed than by Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, who is Jewish.
So I fundamentally object to Douthat’s underlying premise that Romney’s years as a bishop should be
… woven into a biography that emphasized his piety and decency, introducing Americans to the Romney who shut down his business to hunt for a colleague’s missing daughter, the Romney who helped build a memorial park when a friend’s son died of cystic fibrosis, the Romney who lent money to renters to help them buy a house he owned, and so on down a list of generous gestures and good deeds.
Besides, Douthat’s premise is not entirely true. While Romney has wisely refused to get into doctrinal debates with hecklers or curious voters, he has characterized his religious experience as a vehicle for his understanding of the problems of “ordinary Americans.” At a town hall meeting in April, during the primary campaign, Romney volunteered this:
I’ve had an unusual experience. This gentleman wanted to talk about the doctrines of my religion. I’ll talk about the practices of my faith. I had the occasion in my church to be asked to be the pastor, if you will, of a congregation. And I’ve served in that kind of role for about 10 years. And that gave me the occasion to work with people on a very personal basis that were dealing with unemployment, with marital difficulties, with health difficulties of their own and with their kids. People have burdens in this country, and when you get a chance to know people on a very personal basis, whether you’re serving as a pastor or perhaps as a counselor or in other kinds of roles, you understand that every kind of person you see is facing some challenges. And one of the reasons I’m running for president of the United States is I want to help people, I want to lighten that burden.
Douthat worries that in “the biographical movie that will play just before Mitt Romney accepts his party’s nomination … his faith [might] end up on the cutting-room floor.” But Romney’s remarks on the campaign trail suggest that the movie will include a reference to Romney’s Mormonism that I think is perfectly appropriate. How does a well-to-do candidate know about problems he and his own family never faced? He learned about them first-hand by years spent helping parishioners in trouble. What President Obama said he learned as a community organizer, Romney says he learned as a minister. As we say in the South, “same difference.” But it is not the “same difference” as using one’s religious experience to “demonstrate … piety and decency,” as Douthat advocates. When Romney spoke, he used a life experience to explain how he came to empathize with others; Douthat thinks he should use the same life experience to show what a swell person he is. That is the difference between other-directed and self-directed.
Douthat attempts to explain why Romney holds his doctrinal beliefs close to his breast:
… the defensiveness that surfaces around issues like polygamy and race; the fine line Mormon society walks between a healthy solidarity and an unhealthy conformism – and hanging over everything, the burden of defending Joseph Smith’s revelation, which offers not only bold metaphysical claims (as all religions do) but an entire counterhistory of the Americas, which no archaeologist has yet managed to confirm.
That is, even though Mormonism is a Christian religion, the faith holds to doctrine that is notably at odds with mainstream and evangelical Christian belief systems.
Were Romney to illuminate his beliefs, as Douthat wishes him to do, that effort would put him in double jeopardy. Not only is Romney’s a nonconformist faith, Christian religionists who care about such things would (and do) see Romney as “the other” – someone whose cultural identity is different from the core belief system that informs “this Christian nation.” Douthat seems to think Romney could overcome this divide if he were more forthcoming about his religious beliefs, and he might be right. But the campaign trail, in my opinion, is an entirely inappropriate place to proselytize. Candidate Obama did make an extraordinary speech about his own faith, but he did so reluctantly, when persistent false charges forced him to speak about his beliefs. (In 2007, Romney made a similar speech under similar circumstances.)
In addition, a central belief of religious conservatives is that President Obama is “not like them.” He is “the other.” This characterization of the President is also a major premise of Romney’s campaign. No, Romney has not yet gone as far as Newt Gingrich did. Gingrich’s campaign book, after all, is titled To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine, a machine which, Gingrich wrote, is “as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.” Obama is not just “the other”; he is an enemy of the state. Nor has Romney said anything like what Rick Santorum said of Obama’s faith, “It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology, but no less a theology.”
But Romney has joined the chorus of GOP politicians who have accused President Obama of waging “a war on religion.” In a Romney-approved campaign ad, which began airing just last week, the narrator asks, ““Who shares your values? President Obama used his health care plan to declare war on religion, forcing religious institutions to go against their faith.” The ad contrasts President Obama with remarks by Mitt Romney praising Pope John Paul II. “When religious freedom is threatened, who do you want to stand with?” the narrator asks in conclusion. Why – I want Mitt and the pope on my side!
To further emphasize Obama’s “otherness,” a la Gingrich, Romney and his surrogates have accused Obama of being unfamiliar with the mainstream American experience. Romney said recently, “I just don’t think the president, by his comments, suggests an understanding of what it is that makes America such a unique nation.” And as I wrote last week,
Romney says, Obama ‘wants to transform America into a European style nation.’ Top Romney surrogate John Sununu, the disgraced Bush I chief-of-staff, was even more explicit: ‘I wish this president would learn how to be an American,’ he said in July. He also said the president had come from the Chicago “felon” environment.’ Sununu later … [said]: “He [Obama] has no idea how the American system functions, and we shouldn’t be surprised about that, because he spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something, spent the next set of years in Indonesia, another set of years in Indonesia, and, frankly, when he came to the U.S., he worked as a community organizer, which is a socialized structure, and then got into politics in Chicago.’
Romney simply cannot afford to highlight his own “otherness” while he’s faulting Obama for his. (Maybe Douthat could understand this: Romney’s religious “dilemma” is just like one of the embarrassing boxes Romney put himself in when he nominated Paul Ryan to be his running mate. As Steve Benen of the Rachel Maddow Show wrote yesterday, “For months, Mitt Romney repeated a common complaint about President Obama‘s professional background: he’s spent his life in the political world, not the real world…. In May, Romney went so far as to say working in the private sector for ‘at least three years’ should be a prerequisite to national office. But, Benen notes, Ryan has never had a “real job” either; he has spent his entire adult career working in politics. Romney can no longer criticize Obama for not holding a “real job” when he has hand-picked a running mate – whom he presumably considers qualified to be president – who also never held a “real job.”)
There is another possible explanation for Romney’s reticence that Douthat does not recognize. And, as a good Catholic boy, he should. It may be that Romney, like so many of us, thinks that boasting is bad manners. Even when we toot our own horns, we tend to be embarrassed about it, and we often try to relate our successes in terms that deflect credit to others. We are walking Oscar winners: “I want to thank my director, my extraordinary co-stars, my wife, blah blah.”
Like many of our rules of etiquette, this one has a theological basis. In the Sermon on the Mount – the first sayings of Jesus that appear in the New Testament – Jesus says,
Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise, you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4)
I’m going to assume – probably accurately – that Mitt Romney is a true man of faith and that he believes the Biblical teachings. What this Bible lesson – and similar ones (see also Matthew 6:5-16) – says is that anything for which you take credit here on earth has been “paid in full” on earth and doesn’t earn you any “credits” or “rewards” with god. Romney is famously parsimonious. Many commentators have assumed that the reason he won’t release his tax returns is that he has taken every deduction that is arguably legal – even during the period when he was definitely planning to run for the presidency and knew that his taxes could become a campaign issue. We know he also applied for and received property tax reductions on his house in San Diego, though he could easily afford to pay the originally-assessed taxes. If Romney is cheap with his earthly assets, it stands to reason that he does not boast about his earthly “good works” because he wants the “credits” to apply to his “eternal account.” He made those tithes and performed those good works, not out of the goodness of his heart, but so he could get into heaven, for Pete’s sake. He is not going to waste them on campaign rhetoric of questionable value. Romney is not a risk-taker, so he would not “risk” losing his “heaven credits” for something as ephemeral and uncertain as a short-lived temporal reward.
On the other hand, it is quite all right to compliment other people on their “piety and decency.” So Douthat need not worry: Romney will be mentioning religion a lot more on the campaign trail. But it will be Douthat’s religion Romney touts, not his own. In his brief remarks introducing his new running mate yesterday, Romney said, “A faithful Catholic, Paul believes in the worth and dignity of every human life.”
A person steeped in a Christian faith should be well-aware of the virtue of humility. I’m beginning to wonder if Ross Douthat is a good Vatican emissary, after all.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com