Meacham: A New American Holy War

The speech was written, the stagecraft set. Last Wednesday evening, about 12 hours before he was to speak on faith and public life as the guest of George H.W. Bush in College Station, Texas, Mitt Romney was musing aloud about the task before him. The former Massachusetts governor was happy with the text, which had taken him nearly a week to write and polish: it was rife with allusions to the Founding Fathers and to what Romney called "our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty." He was thrilled, too, that the 41st president was going to introduce him; Romney would not have chosen the Bush library as the venue if the senior President Bush had declined to be there. (Bush 41 offered no endorsement, but tacit benediction—and, before the morning speech, cold cereal, which Romney declined, leaving the former president to have a bowl by himself while the governor drank a caffeine-free Diet Coke.) "My view is that when a person of faith is running for office—particularly a person of a faith you may not be familiar with—there are some questions that are legitimate," Romney said from the road in Houston. Would the authorities of a president's church exert influence on White House decisions? Would a president of a given faith put his country's traditions and laws above those of his church's? "Those are real issues, and people have a right to hear a candidate address them," Romney said. But there had to be a line drawn somewhere: "There are some particular doctrines, some theological concepts, that we don't need to go into, no matter what faith it is."

Or so Romney hopes—and, given the poll numbers in Iowa, which votes in three weeks, perhaps prays. At almost exactly the same hour on Wednesday, Mike Huckabee was spending a rare night at home in Little Rock, packing for a campaign trip to South Carolina. In a telephone interview with NEWSWEEK'S Holly Bailey, Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, declined to say whether he agreed with evangelical Christians who believe Mormonism is a heretical cult. "First of all, I don't think it's appropriate for me to start evaluating other religions," Huckabee said. "The more I answer these questions, the more people want to say, 'Ah, you describe yourself as a theologian,' or 'Oh, you're the one who is setting yourself up as a judge of religions.' I am damned if I do; I am damned if I don't."

Then he did. Asked if he thought Scriptural revelations from God ended when the Bible was completed, Huckabee said: "I don't have any evidence or indication that he's handed us a new book to add to the ones, the 66, that were canonized in 325 A.D. … It was a careful process that adopted those books. That was something I did study in college and seminary … the process by which we ended up with those books. I don't know that there's any other books."

Which no doubt comes as a surprise to the world's nearly 13 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who, like Romney, believe that God did indeed reveal another text in 19th-century America, the Book of Mormon. For Huckabee, such a disagreement in a matter of faith can be no small thing. In an ad, he is styled as a "Christian leader" and says, "Faith doesn't just influence me; it really defines me."

So it has come to this: the 2008 Republican Iowa caucuses have descended into a kind of holy war. The clash centers on issues that are, in Saint Augustine's phrase, ever ancient, ever new: the nature of God, the disposition of power and the sanctity of conscience. The skirmish pits Huckabee against Romney in a story of hardball politics and high-minded history, of shadowy slurs and noble principles.

Fights about faith and politics have been with us always. In 1800, there were advertisements saying voters could have "Adams and God, or Jefferson and no God." Andrew Jackson resisted the formation of a "Christian Party in Politics." Abraham Lincoln buried a proposed constitutional amendment designed to declare the nation's dependence on, and allegiance to, Jesus. A century ago, in the 1908 campaign, William Howard Taft, a Unitarian, was attacked as an apostate by supporters of William Jennings Bryan, an evangelical Christian. "Think of the United States with a President who does not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, but looks upon our immaculate Savior as a … low, cunning imposter!" The Pentecostal Herald said in July 1908.

Three weeks away from the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, it seems clear that we have not moved very far beyond where we were in the Taft-Bryan race. In November, voters in Iowa and in New Hampshire received mysterious calls known as push polls, in which the questioner "pushes" an often hostile point about a candidate in the guise of asking a polling question. According to The Boston Globe, Ralph Watts, a state representative in Iowa who backs Romney, got just such a call. The voice on the other end of the line said: "Some people say the Mormon Church is a cult; would that make you more or less likely to vote for Mitt Romney?" Then came favorable questions about John McCain. (The calls stopped once they were reported in the press; they have been traced to a Utah-based company. The McCain, Huckabee and Giuliani campaigns deny any involvement, and the New Hampshire attorney general is investigating.)

The calls are the most egregious manifestations of a larger anti-Mormon bias. Romney had long resisted making a big speech on religion; he and his advisers believed it would only attract attention to a complicated and distracting issue. The new NEWSWEEK Poll of Iowa voters shows why he had to change his mind: Huckabee is now leading Romney among likely caucus-goers, 39 percent to 17 percent. Among evangelicals—who are likely to make up roughly 40 percent of the vote on Jan. 3—Huckabee is ahead 47 percent to 14 percent. Among non-evangelicals, the two are tied at 24 percent each. Half of evangelical voters say they do not consider Mormons to be Christians, and a third say Romney's faith makes them less likely to support him.

In College Station, Romney avoided explaining the particulars of the Mormon Church, focusing instead on the broader history of faith and politics in America. "Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me," he said. "And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion—rather, we welcome our nation's symphony of faith." In articulating the Gospel According to Mitt, though, he never explicitly endorsed a critical element of the American tradition: the right of any person not to believe.

In a telephone interview with Romney on Friday evening, I asked him why he had, to many ears, seemed to fail to reach out to those of no religious belief: "I was struck that you did not explicitly extend the definition of religious liberty to those who believe nothing at all …"

"I don't think I defined religious liberty," Romney replied. "I think it spoke for itself … but of course it includes all, all forms of personal conviction."

"Or the lack thereof?"

"Yeah, the lack …" He paused. "But—well, the people who don't have a particular faith have a personal conviction. I said all forms of personal conviction. And personal conviction includes a sense of right and wrong and any host of beliefs someone might have. Obviously in this nation our religious liberty includes the ability to believe or not believe."

So, in the end, there it was, but it took a while. Not surprisingly, the politics of the primary season probably kept him from making himself clear from the start: to offer a hand to atheists and agnostics, while presidential, would do him little good, and possibly much harm, with the Iowa voters he needs.

Romney also conflated religion and morality, quoting John Adams, who said, "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion … Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people." True—but note that Adams spoke of morality and religion as separate things. Acts of charity and grace need not be religiously inspired; many are and many are not. Religious people can be intolerant, cruel and exclusionary; they can also be broad-minded, kind and welcoming. The same can be said of people who adhere to no religious faith.

After citing Adams, Romney said: "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom." The second part is an ancient theological tradition: without free will faith is not faith but coercion. The first point, however, is arguable, for societies can be secular, free and successful. I asked Romney to explain his thinking. In sum, he believes a republic is dependent on the virtue of the people, the virtue of the people is dependent on morality, and that morality is dependent on religion. To support his case he (wisely) alluded to Washington's Farewell Address, which says, "of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports … let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion." But Washington was simply raising a "caution," and it is a mistake to think that one need be religious to be moral.

Romney would have been on safer ground had he said that America has always been largely religious and largely free, and that America's religious traditions should fight for the freedom of all, if only out of self-interest. Without freedom of conscience, today's tyrant could be tomorrow's tyrannized, and the other way round. With freedom of conscience, we come closer to living out the promise Washington made in his 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, R.I., in which he said that the government of the United States was "to give to bigotry no sanction … and to persecution no assistance."

Romney's failure to make a noble public stand for the rights of atheists and skeptics is tactically understandable if intellectually disappointing. The man he is now trailing in Iowa is smooth on the campaign circuit, appealing to conservative Christians without alienating other kinds of voters. How long this will last is an open question. Huckabee the front runner is only now beginning to face new scrutiny. A speech he gave in 1998 is likely to come up again. Addressing Southern Baptist pastors gathered at the Salt Palace Convention Center, Huckabee, then governor of Arkansas, said that he "got into politics because I knew government didn't have the real answers, that real answers lie in accepting Jesus Christ into our lives … I hope we answer the alarm clock and take this nation back for Christ."

Take this nation back for Christ: the phrase echoes the language of Jerry Falwell, who was against ministers' mixing in politics when the subject was civil rights but changed his mind after the Roe decision in 1973. In a Moral Majority report, Falwell's organization urged "an old-fashioned, God-honoring, Christ-exalting revival to turn America back to God." Such talk was precisely what the Founders had hoped to avoid.

In truth, the separation of church and state—including a constitutional prohibition against a religious test for federal office—was essential to them, but they also understood that religion and politics were always going to be mixed up together. The critical thing was to manage this human reality, to minimize its ill effects and make the most of the possible good it could do. Led by Madison, the Founders were determined to make religion one of the many contending forces in the republican arena—forces that would check and balance one another.

The alternatives were—and are—bleak. To try to banish faith altogether would fail, for the religious would become martyrs, and religious belief is a perennial force in human affairs. ("All men," said Homer, "need the gods.") And to give faith a dominant role risked repeating the gloomy experience of the Old World and the worst parts of our Colonial history, a history checkered by theocracy and persecution from Jamestown to Massachusetts Bay.

Taken all in all, religion, like commerce and nationalism and so much else in history, has had its bright and dark hours. In 1808, Jacob Henry, a Jewish-American, was elected to the state legislature of North Carolina, which refused to seat him unless he was (a) a Protestant and (b) conceded the divine authority of the Old and New Testaments. Here is what Henry said to them: "Governments only concern the actions and conduct of man, and not his speculative notions. Who among us feels himself so exalted above his fellows as to have a right to dictate to them any mode of belief?"

Too many people do feel so exalted, which is why religious believers, who far outnumber those who do not believe, have a special obligation to be humble and gracious and respectful. John Jay, the chief justice and a warden of Trinity Church Wall Street in New York, was a devout Anglican, but he firmly understood what America was to be about: "Real Christians," he said, "will abstain from violating the rights of others." Or better yet, real Americans will abstain from violating those rights.

Last Thursday morning, his speech done, Romney and his family had a short visit with the Bushes, and then took their leave. The governor had closed his remarks with the image of the Continental Congress at prayer in Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia amid what John Adams called "the horrible rumor of the cannonade of Boston." The delegates had argued over whether those of different denominations could pray together, but they were brought together when Sam Adams announced that he was "no bigot, and could hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue who was at the same time a friend to his country." An Episcopal priest was summoned, and read the psalm assigned for the day: "Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me; fight against them that fight against me." Back in Iowa, at war, one suspects it is a prayer that resonates with Romney.

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