Whatever happened to the separation of Church and State?
Republicans reap the religious whirlwind
When Karl Rove, the architect of George W Bush’s election victories, first dreamt up the idea of a new and permanent Republican majority, he realised he needed some glue. The anticommunist adhesive was rubbing thin after the cold war, and Clinton-hatred could only do so much without President Clinton. Rove’s solution was religion.
Why not? Many evangelical Christians were already part of the Republican party, many were restive against the abortion and gay rights rulings of the courts, and even secular Republicans were more comfortable with traditionalist religious types than know-it-all liberal atheists.
Rove also had a perfect candidate: a genial fellow – Bush – who indicated clearly his own political philosophy when asked in an early primary debate who his favourite philosopher was. “Christ,” he answered, “because He changed my heart.” “Christ,” many wondered silently in response, “where is all this going to end up?”
Well, it ended up in the current Republican primary season. And what fun it is. Rudy Giuliani – the strongest Republican candidate in the polls – is nominally a Catholic but, according to the Pope on his trip to Brazil last week, has already excommunicated himself by backing abortion rights.
Giuliani has tried to finesse his long record of supporting public financing for abortion, but finesse is not what the evangelical primary voters want. And so last week he gave up trying and told the media he’d be running proudly as a pro-choice candidate in primaries organised by people for whom abortion is the most important issue. He’ll need a lot of luck.
So will the other leading light: Mitt Romney. Romney is a very accomplished executive, speaks well, innovated universal private-sector healthcare in Massachusetts – and has the hair and teeth and demeanour of a president. Alas, Romney too has a long record of being strongly inclusive of gay people and solidly pro-choice. Grafting him onto the party that Rove built is not too easy. As recently as 2002 his wife told Massachusetts women they “had nothing to worry about” with her husband’s pro-abortion stance. Not so long ago Romney himself campaigned for the Senate in Massachusetts by pledging to be more pro-gay than Ted Kennedy.
Romney has adjusted to the Bush-Rove rules by claiming that he has suddenly evolved on these issues and is now pro-life and antigay. No one really buys it. But his obvious comfort with blatant pandering and eagerness to tell voters what he thinks they want to hear has reassured some on the religious right. They argue that an actual evangelical in the White House has not been able to stop abortions and gay marriages, so maybe a nonevangelical could do better.
But the nature of that nonevangelical faith was bound to come up at some point. And Al Sharpton did the honours last week when debating with the writer Christopher Hitchens on the place of religious faith in contemporary America. “As for the one Mormon running for office, those that really believe in God will defeat him anyway, so don’t worry about that,” Sharpton opined.
Ugh. Romney hit back swiftly. “It shows that bigotry still exists in some corners,” he said. He was right to react immediately. A poll last year found that only 31% of Americans view Mormonism as part of Christianity, compared with 35% who did not and 31% who were unsure. Romney knows that he has to tackle this issue directly and powerfully if he is to survive the primaries.
It’s a tough task. Romney has tried to defuse it by focusing on the values that Mormons share with evangelicals, specifically the importance of the family and social stability. He glosses over the Mormon belief that marriages are eternal and physically replicated in heaven for ever; and he omits the mysterious temple rituals that seal these familial bonds.
But, perhaps sensing that this is not enough in a religiously charged polity, Romney has gone one step further. Tackling an antiMormon evangelical heckler at one event, Romney delivered this carefully rehearsed line: “We need to have a person of faith lead the country.” It sounds pleasant enough and smooths over the difficult question of what exactly the content of your faith is – but isn’t it also a form of bigotry? Doesn’t it imply that atheists have no business running for office in the United States? If it’s bigotry to oppose someone on the basis of their faith, why is it not bigotry to oppose someone because they have none?
What the Republicans are discovering is that the short-term gains of using religion as a political weapon may be outweighed by the medium-term costs. Their two best candidates have been crippled by religious controversy. The third, John McCain, despite being pro-life, has had run-ins with the religious right in the past and cannot regain lost trust with the evangelical base.
Meanwhile, independents and swing voters are turned off by some of the rhetoric. In the first nationally televised Republican debate, three candidates said they did not accept the theory of evolution. If they don’t even buy natural selection, how are they going to grapple with climate change? And then there are small stories from the heart-land that just strike many Americans as bizarre. My favourite one was a resolution proposed by Utah Republicans at a local convention a couple of weeks ago. It was a statement of opposition to illegal immigration, but it had an eye-catching title: “Resolution opposing Satan’s plan to destroy the US by stealth invasion.”
The real stealth invasion, of course, is the incursion of blatant sectarianism into secular American political discourse. Sectarian politics doesn’t work in Baghdad, and it can’t work in Washington either. When it doesn’t end all civil conversation, it diminishes the ability of good men – like Romney and Giuliani – to run for office regardless of their own religious convictions.
The Founding Fathers knew this, which is why they separated church and state and kept their own public demonstrations of religion to a perfunctory minimum. Americans are learning it again. But for the Republicans, it may be coming a little too late. At the rate they’re going, they’re not going to have a prayer. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is among Republicans discovering there is a downside to using religion as a political weapon