Meacham on Romney and Religion

When Mitt Romney delivers his talk about faith and America on Thursday, he will be writing a new chapter in one of the country's longest-running tales, the story of the tension between religion and liberty and church and state. Questions do not get any more fundamental than the one Romney has set out to address, for America was explicitly founded on the principle that religion, while a critical element in a republic, should not dominate that republic's political life.

The former Massachusetts governor is giving the speech because he is a Mormon, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. There are conservative Christians (and no doubt others) who believe Mormons are not Christians, or that the church is a cult. A new study from Vanderbilt University's John Geer, released on Wednesday, has found that "bias against Mormons is significantly more intense among the public compared to bias against women and blacks." And it seems safe to say, too, that Romney would be spending Thursday very differently if Mike Huckabee were not ahead in the Iowa polls.

While the impetus may be tactical, Romney has an unusual opportunity to revisit some of the most compelling history in the American experience. He should say clearly in his speech that he will not allow his church to dictate to him on public matters, and that he will always explain himself if or when a specific political position he holds is linked to a doctrine of his faith: we deserve to know that much of any candidate. Beyond that, he should talk about how religion has shaped us without strangling us, and that the Founders envisioned a nation in which religion would be one factor among many in the life of the country. (An odd disclosure: it has been reported that Romney is reading "American Gospel," a book I wrote on this subject in 2006, in preparation for his address at the Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.)

It is not an easy speech to give. The role of religion in politics tends to create extreme positions—or at least those who hold the more extreme positions are a good deal louder than more moderate voices. On the one hand there is a strong sense in the country that America is on the road to theocratic rule, that evangelical Christians are on the march and that the Founders were all about the "wall of separation" written about by Thomas Jefferson. On the other hand are many religious people who mistakenly think that America was founded as a "Christian nation" (which it was not), that the Founding Fathers were apostles in knee britches (which they were not) and that liberal activist judges have systematically stolen the country's religious heritage (which they have not).

Neither side has it right. The separation of church and state—including the explicit prohibition against a religious test for office in the Constitution—was essential to the Founders, 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 to make the most of the possible good it could do. And so if Romney wishes to argue that religion is important but not all-important, and that judging candidates by sectarian labels is not what America was intended to be about, then history is on his side.

These questions are hardly new. In 1800 there were advertisements saying voters could have "Adams and God, or Jefferson and no God." Three decades later Andrew Jackson had to resist 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. The only words FDR spoke in public on D-Day were those in a prayer of his composition, which he read over the radio to an audience of 100 million Americans, perhaps the largest mass prayer in human history. And the last line of the ur-text of modern liberalism, JFK's inaugural, was: "On earth, God's work must truly be our own."

The question is just who this God is, this God of the American public square. John McCain stumbled recently when he said that the Constitution had established the United States as a Christian nation, which it most decidedly did not. In fact the wondrous thing about the Founding of the nation is how consciously and how carefully the Founders went about securing liberty of conscience. Washington said that the government of the United States was "to give to bigotry no sanction … and to persecution no assistance." Jefferson said that his Virginia act for religious liberty was "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindu, and infidel of every denomination." And Madison said, "The religion of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man."

Romney ought to call on Americans to recover and respect what Benjamin Franklin called our public religion: the belief that there is a divine force at work in the world, by whatever name, and that we render homage to it by doing good to others. Acts of charity and grace need not be religiously inspired, but many are. Religious people can be intolerant, cruel and exclusionary; they can also be broad-minded, kind and welcoming. And the same can be said of people who adhere to no religious faith. Yet it is the case that many Americans are religious—or say they are—and that the fundamental promise of the Founding, that all men are created equal, is grounded in the divine, as the gift of the "Creator."

American history is checkered with stories of exclusion and intolerance. 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?"

Sadly, too many people do feel so exalted, which is why it is incumbent on the rest of us to recall the work of the Founders. They are often dismissed as dead white men, which they are, but when they were living white men they saw further ahead than most. They knew religion was a perennial factor in the lives of men and nations, and they sought to respect it but to manage it—to make it one thread in the tapestry. Sectarian labels mattered little, doctrinal differences even less. Franklin may have put it best: "When a religion is good, I conceive that it can support itself, and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one." It is, in other words, a mighty poor faith that needs a politician to support it.

From the Revolution through the Civil War and the battle against Jim Crow, we have nurtured—slowly and sporadically, to be sure, but steadily—the rule of law and the supremacy of every individual soul. The story of expanding liberties, of our wars against tyranny and terror abroad and against injustice and discrimination at home, is a story that reminds us to be vigilant, for even the best-intentioned can commit, and tolerate, the very worst of sins in their midst. It is much easier to be self-righteous in retrospect than to do the right thing in real time—a good point for Romney, and all the other candidates, to make early and often.