Faith (and Faithlessness?) in America

Joseph M. Knippenberg

December 1, 2007

Amidst the general approbation for Mitt Romney’s speech on “Faith in America”, some conservatives have sounded a dissenting note, one echoed even more loudly by his critics across the aisle. Why, they ask, didn’t Governor Romney leave room for faithlessness as well as faith in America?

Here, for example, is David Brooks, writing a passage about outsiders and insiders that could have been penned by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor:

Romney described a community yesterday. Observant Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Jews and Muslims are inside that community. The nonobservant are not. There was not even a perfunctory sentence showing respect for the nonreligious. I’m assuming that Romney left that out in order to generate howls of outrage in the liberal press.

Peggy Noonan was even more tart:

There was one significant mistake in the speech. I do not know why Romney did not include nonbelievers in his moving portrait of the great American family. We were founded by believing Christians, but soon enough Jeremiah Johnson, and the old proud agnostic mountain men, and the village atheist, and the Brahmin doubter, were there, and they too are part of us, part of this wonderful thing we have. Why did Mr. Romney not do the obvious thing and include them? My guess: It would have been reported, and some idiots would have seen it and been offended that this Romney character likes to laud atheists. And he would have lost the idiot vote.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the speech, the first responders were raising their eyebrows. Here is The Weekly Standard’s Matthew Continetti, who asks:

But what about the not insignificant, and growing, number of Americans who are agnostics, or atheists, or nonpracticing members of a religious faith? I suppose Romney chose all his words here carefully, and nonbelievers or unbelievers who nonetheless believe in religious freedom are Romney’s friends and allies too.

Still: Contrast the above paragraph with past statements from George W. Bush, who has often gone out of his way to include nonbelievers among the groups of “people of faith” to whom he pays respect.

And National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, who mildly observes:

It would have been nice if Romney, while making room for people of all faiths in this country, could have also made some room for people with none.

When your friends are saying this sort of thing, imagine the response from those less charitably inclined, such as this Washington Post editorialist:

Where Mr. Romney most fell short, though, was in his failure to recognize that America is composed of citizens not only of different faiths but of no faith at all and that the genius of America is to treat them all with equal dignity. “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom,” Mr. Romney said. But societies can be both secular and free. The magnificent cathedrals of Europe may be empty, as Mr. Romney said, but the democracies of Europe are thriving.

“Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government,” Mr. Romney said. But not all Americans acknowledge that, and those who do not may be no less committed to the liberty that is the American ideal.

There you have David Brooks’s howls, which are amplified in this New York Times editorial, which reminds us that Governor Romney is addressing himself to Peggy Noonan’s “idiots”:

[I]n his speech, he courted the most religiously intolerant sector of American political life by buying into the myths at the heart of the “cultural war,” so eagerly embraced by the extreme right.

The narrative that seems to be emerging is that Mitt Romney lacks the courage to stand up to the narrow-minded and intolerant yahoos on what pundit Andrew Sullivan would call the “Christianist” side of the Republican Party. I think that Romney could offer a courageous response to this line of argument and here, without further ado, it is.

He can begin by calling attention to this carefully-worded passage in his speech:

In such a world, we can be deeply thankful that we live in a land where reason and religion are friends and allies in the cause of liberty, joined against the evils and dangers of the day. And you can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me.

Here he unites the rationalist and religious friends of liberty against its enemies, at the same time affirming that “any believer in religious freedom,” as well as any religious believer, “has a friend and ally in me.” His “symphony” is indeed not all-inclusive: excluded are religious enemies of liberty (the jihadis) and rationalist enemies of religion (those who adhere to what he at one point calls “the religion of secularism”).

While his critics aren’t so bold and foolish as to take him to task for reading the former out of his American mosaic, there are some who would regard him as intolerant for excluding the latter. But there Governor Romney is in good company. Consider, for example, these words from George Washington’s Farewell Address:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

According to Washington, our republic cannot stand without the support of religion and morality, and, indeed, the latter can’t stand without the former. Most of us can’t be good, or good citizens, without God. We rely for law-abidingness not on a cop on every street corner, but on our conscientious adherence to the law, on a conscience we’re convinced our Creator gave us. And we rely for civic solidarity not simply on a sense of ethnic or racial identity, nor simply on a shared patriotism or nationalism, but on the conviction that we’re all God’s children. Yes, a few might come to their sense of duty through purely rational channels, but even they would recognize that the swift and royal road to good republican citizenship is through religion, whose teaching and preaching they would leave undisturbed, or even support (as did the heterodox Ben Franklin the churches in Philadelphia).

Governor Romney could also cite this passage from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia:

[C]an the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?

Recognizing that our liberties are the gift of God is what makes them inalienable. Without this conviction that I am responsible to my Maker, not only for my liberty, but for others’, I might be inclined to be cavalier, not only with others’ rights, but with my own. However much we might be indulgent in judging our own cases, giving ourselves a pass as we abuse our freedoms or those of others, we have a harder time evading God’s judgment. Of course, Jefferson also said that “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” He’s right: my civil rights aren’t harmed by anyone’s religious opinions, but only by their actions. But everyone recognizes that there’s a nexus between opinion and action, and that the person who announces that “God is dead, everything is permitted” has swept away one prop of self-restraint, one barrier to misbehavior.

In sum, Governor Romney could surely welcome many a non-believer to his national table. But those non-believers would have to have a healthy respect for the role of faith in the lives of their neighbors and in the life of the republic. They would have to be friends of religious liberty, not just so they can be free not to believe, but because they recognize that the religion that flourishes under conditions of liberty is the great bulwark of the republic and that mere human reason is a slender reed upon which to rely for our goodness and decency.

In offering this invitation to non-believers, Governor Romney could also teach his actual and potential faithful supporters a lesson or two. They should know already, if they have been listening to their preachers, that loudly proclaiming one’s faith might be evidence of sanctimony rather than sanctification. They can also learn that they can share with the modestly faithless a certain mistrust of human reason and human power. And, finally, they can be reminded that, even if there is no high and impermeable wall of separation between church and state, the legitimate and limited objects of government can be sought through cooperation with citizens of the “City of Man” as well as of the “City of God.”

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.