Freedom not the sole domain of the religious


For all the talk of loose morals in the mainstream media, it’s clear there’s still one taboo: secularism. One need only look at the upcoming presidential election and the central role religion — yet again — has been given by pundits and candidates.

In just two weeks, the already ever-present presidential campaign season will be all but inescapable by anyone who turns on a television, listens to the radio, or opens a newspaper. On Jan. 3, 2008, caucus-goers in Iowa will be the first to officially weigh in on their favorite candidates to replace President George W. Bush. Just over a month later, on Feb. 5, 2008, Californians will have their say. In a break with tv he past, voters in the nation’s richest, most populous state may actually influence the selection of their parties’ nominees on a day when more than 20 states will also hold primary elections. We don’t need to re-emphasize the need for voters — whatever their political affiliation — to participate in the electoral process or the fact that who each party nominates may have a larger impact on this nation’s future than the general election itself.

Instead, we’d like to emphasize something lost in all the noise surrounding these campaigns. We’d like to emphasize society’s failure at asking the right questions about a concept central to American democracy: the separation of church and state.

On Dec. 6, former Massachussetts Governor Mitt Romney delivered a speech titled “Faith in America” at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas. Romney, a Mormon, had for months been the Republican frontrunner in the Iowa caucus until former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, pulled into a virtual tie with Romney.

While it would be political suicide for any candidate to admit it openly, many observers view Romney’s faith as a liability in a country that — outside of Utah and neighboring states — does not have a firm grasp on the tenets of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Many have compared Romney’s challenge to the suspicion that surrounded John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism.

The questions were rife with America’s trademark fear of the unknown. Will Romney really serve the interests of this country, or will he be the puppet of his church’s living prophet? Does he believe in Jesus? Do Mormons really believe Satan is the brother of Christ? Etc., etc.

Romney’s “Faith in America” speech was a calculated response, a landmark soliloquy orchestrated to evoke his interpretation of the framers of the U.S. Constitution as well as Kennedy.

“Like him,” Romney said, “I am an American running for President. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.”

Romney is correct. Just as we ask our leaders not to let their faith influence the way they govern, we must not let our religious beliefs get in the way of choosing the best leader for our country.

However, the ensuing analysis and discussion of Romney’s speech, and the speech itself, present a worrying picture for our nation. Romney may have made a strategic gain in his race for the GOP nomination and earned the trust of cautious social conservatives who may now have a deeper understanding of his religion. However, his interpretation of the history of religion in America belies a key tenet of the free exercise of religion: freedom from religion.

“Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,” Romney said in his speech. “Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.”

Those words, Romney’s continued excoriation of secularism, and the media’s collective failure to question this position are a slap in the face to the millions of Americans who look deep within their souls and find no belief in a higher power, those Americans who find all their answers to life’s mysteries in science and those Americans who choose that their faith, their spirituality is so personal that it is theirs and theirs alone and not the provenance of any religion.

Romney’s speech reinforces the flawed argument that atheists, agnostics and other secular individuals are lesser Americans undeserving of the same freedoms afforded to those who believe in a god, however they might define it.

Americans who believe all people, whatever they do, or do not, believe should be judged by their faith, and not by any factor beyond the actions they have taken in their lives, the efforts they have made for their neighbors and communities, and their ability to forgive and work to be forgiven, do not believe in freedom and justice for all.

We are free to decide, and we will not choose a two-tier society of any sort.

Enough is enough.


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