Yesterday, I wrote a quick one-off on one line from Mitt Romney’s I’m a different religion but I’m not scary speech that struck me. That note was meant more as a place-holder for me, and I have since managed to read the full text of the speech and have fleshed out my thoughts a bit more fully.
Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom
Firstly, there is no requirement for religion in freedom. There is certainly a requirement to be free to worship as one chooses, but it is absolutely possible for a nation of atheists to live a free life. The freedom to worship is not “religion”, and religion is not “the freedom to worship”. That underlying premise is the first problem I have with the statement.
The remainder of the speech makes no bones about the fact that there is little or no room in Romney’s pantheon for non-believers. Or Muslims or Buddhists either, unless I missed something. These omissions are not accidental, there is an “us or them” quality that is crafted to include Mormons in “us” while still satisfying the bigotry implicit in modern US political parlance that requires a “them” to rally the troops. Romney has to walk a careful line here – Mormon’s are outsiders (“them”) to many Americans, so he has to emphasize the similarities between Mormon and traditional Christian beliefs while being careful of making the similarities so general that it washes any meaning out of the argument. In short, he has to create the “us” broadly enough to include Mormons, while leaving room for others to be “them”, so “us” still has meaning. (Read Dr. Suess’ The Sneetches and Other Stories for a more in depth exploration of the same idea.)
Implicit in Romney’s argument is that only a “person of faith”, ahem, of certain faiths, can be moral, and by God, he is a Man of Faith.
I make no bones about my own religious views, which, in my more intemperate moods, also comes out as bigotry, pure or otherwise. Religion, in my mind, is simply a way of answering the scary questions that we can’t otherwise answer, and if it helps one get through the day, so be it. However, I ferverently hope that some day we will collectively lift ourselves beyond the need for a deity to justify and explain, and thereby take full responsibility for our own actions. When you take the step from relying on a god(dess) for “answers” to accepting that for some questions there are no answers (“why are we here?”) and for others the answer is “no” (“is there life after death?” or “does my life have extrinsic meaning?”), responsibility for your own actions shifts dramatically.
However, what scares me most about the speech is not really the text, it’s the context. Romney is forced to go before the public and prostrate himself to satisfy the Religious Right, whose views and actions are dictated not so much by God or the historical writings of a couple of thousand years ago, but by their bigoted, cynical evangelical leaders who have managed to justify all sort of foolishness in the name of “God”. Romney has done this in many ways, of course, not just yesterday during this speech; he has back-tracked on many of the more liberal stances he took in order to become governer of a relatively liberal state. It’s part of the campaign, a part of the political game. Just another sacrifice to ambition.
Passive faith has always been to a certain extent a switching off of the rational brain, a surrender to a higher authority, a passing of decision-making to others. There are benefits to both those that do the passing, and those that receive it; on the one hand, there is a comfort derived from pat answers to intractable questions, and on the other, influence, freedom, control, and above all, power. At a political level there is much to be benefited by those that can harness the power of numbers when those numbers stop questioning their decisions, actions, and intent, and the evangelical movement has become politically very influential because of this. Through publicly-fought battles (evolution in schools, the “war on Christmas”, the ten commandments in courts, etc.) they have used the freedom to worship, as well as the garment of the victimized minority (yeah, right), as weapons to further dissolve the wall between church and state and openly state their desire to create a Christian America. There is little doubt in my mind that the goal of these groups is not the perpetuation of the freedom to worship, rather the opposite – limiting religious choice. It is safe to say that today, while it is legal, it is effectively impossible for an atheist to run for high office in the United States. There is a de facto religious test that must be passed.
The result of the increased influence of evangelical groups, this harnessed religious power, is thus a net decrease in freedom, political and personal, not an increase, as Romney claims.
Freedom does not require religion any more than a dog requires a trombone.