Friday, December 30, 2011

The Romney Paradox (and the Crybaby Bishops)

cross-posted from Dagblog

Mitt Romney used to be Governor of Massachusetts, a commonwealth which has at various times been A) the closest thing to a theocracy America has ever had and B) the poster child for tolerant secular liberalism. Many vocal religious conservatives now insist that the tolerant secular liberalism is an infringement on their religious liberty, and that they can only fully exercise their religion when the state actively endorses and promotes their religious values for them.

Back in the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, of course, the government did actively promote religious values, and the official magistrates were under the indirect supervision of the ministers. (Massachusetts was never such a theocracy that the ministers were directly in control, but the religious leaders could make and break the politicians; they weren't officeholders, but they were political bosses). This is the closest resemblance that any historical fact bears to the Christian Nation narrative popular with today's religious right.

Here's the thing, though: none of the people currently demanding a Christian Nation would have been able to exercise their religion under that system. Virtually without exception, today's right-wing religious activists belong to denominations that were banned in colonial Massachusetts (or would have been, had they been founded in time). Mitt Romney, likewise, would not have been allowed to practice his faith or even to remain in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The Massachusetts authorities in the 17th century were given to expelling members of dissident religious groups, such as the Baptists, with an instructive public whipping to hasten them on their way. They executed people for the crime of being Quakers. (Those executions led the English government to tyrannically curtail Massachusetts' religious freedom by forbidding the colonists to hang people for being a different flavor of Protestant Christian.) After the King outlawed religious executions, the God-fearing colonists had to content themselves with whippings, expulsions, and breaking into to private homes to see if anyone was holding a Quaker service inside.

Baptists were outlaws; the Pentecostalists and other later evangelical denominations would surely have been outlawed too. Practicing Catholicism was out of the question; Massachusetts Puritans looked on the Catholic Church as a diabolic organization headed by the Anti-Christ. The Catholics didn't enjoy religious toleration in England, let alone Puritan New England, and as late as the 1830s a mob burned down a convent in greater Boston, because it was full of, you know, nuns.

And as for being a Mormon, if there had been any Mormons yet, forget it. Groups that got driven out of 19th-century Illinois wouldn't have stood a chance in theocratic Boston. If Mitt Romney had shown up in the Massachusetts Bay Colony he would have been immediately thrown in jail, publicly flogged, and (if he caught a few bad breaks) hanged. In fact, every single Republican candidate for the presidential nomination, including Herman Cain and Tim Pawlenty, belongs to a church that would have been criminalized in early colonial Boston.

On the other hand, "Godless" liberal Massachusetts, that terrible threat to religious freedom, has treated Mitt Romney remarkably well. Not only did he get two degrees from Harvard (whose Puritan founders would have never admitted anyone of his faith), and he was actually elected to John Winthrop's old job as Governor! (We're still trying to harness the original colonists spinning in their graves to make green electricity.) He didn't do any of that on a wave of religious support from his fellow Mormons, of whom Massachusetts has approximately none. He did it with the votes of people who don't believe in his religion and have no particular sympathy for it, even some people who view Mormonism as slightly crazy. Those voters disagree with Romney's personal religious choices, but respected his right to make them and did not penalize him for them. Tolerant liberal values gave Mitt Romney the maximum freedom to practice his faith.

The people of Massachusetts did expect Romney to live up to the traditional separation-of-church-and-state deal, in which the elected magistrate represents the interests of the whole commonwealth and not his private religious convictions. If Mormon Governor Romney felt that, as a Latter-Day Saint, he had to close down all of the state's bars, liquor stores, and coffee shops, he wouldn't have been Governor Romney for even a week. In fact, Romney signed the repeal of the old Puritan-inspired Blue Law against selling alcohol on Sundays. He acted on behalf of the voters who had delegated him his authority, rather than using that authority to express his own religious concerns or impose them upon the public.

Was this a limitation of his religious freedom? No. It was a recognition that an elected leader is a representative of the public. If Romney had insisted that his freedom of religion entitled him to use his office to promote his specific values, he would have been barred from that office, because under that system no reasonable voter would ever choose to empower any candidate whose religion differed from their own. If we all agree that the President of the United States will keep his religious practice separate from his public duties, then anyone can be President. But if we considered the President of the United States free to use the powers of office to promote his or her own faith, then no one who doesn't share my particular faith, or yours, would be acceptable to me or to you. We can have, say, a Quaker president (like Nixon), because we know that the president won't simply disband the armed forces to keep with his Quaker faith. If Nixon had undergone a (spectacularly unlikely) crisis of conscience and decided that he had to be true to his religious upbringing he had to abolish the army and navy, he would have been impeached faster than he could resign.

Today's religious right complain about the separation of church and state as a hindrance to their religious freedom. Most recently, some Catholic bishops have complained that they can now longer receive taxpayer funding for adoption-placement services that exclude gay couples from adopting. They are free to run a Catholic adoption agency, and free to turn away gay couples if they choose, on the principle that children are better off orphans than raised by two men or two women. What they view as "government-backed persecution" is that the taxpayer will no longer underwrite this. Apparently, the bishops feel the government is obligated to fund an adoption service that deliberately limits the pool of adoptive parents, rather than giving its money to adoption services that accept more potential parents and therefore place more kids. “In the name of tolerance, we’re not being tolerated,” one of the bishops has told the New York Times, which reports that these bishops fear "an escalating campaign by the government to trample on their religious freedom."

To those bishops, I can only say: get over it. If you feel that it is important to keep orphans from being adopted by gay couples, and want to run a heterosexual-only adoption service, you can do it with donations from like-minded donors. You're not being "persecuted" because the government won't fund it for you. Taxpayers don't want their money spent to keep orphans from being adopted. Keeping orphans from being adopted because your religion currently teaches certain ideas about gayness is also not a public benefit. And as far as intolerance for the Catholic faith goes: baby, if this feels like persecution to you, you have clearly arrived. Nobody's set fire to a nunnery in this town for a long, long time.

Today's religious right defines "freedom of religion" as the freedom to use public resources, and public authority, in order to further the goals of their own specific religion. But almost without exception, the groups who feel "persecuted" by the government's religious neutrality are the groups who would never have been tolerated in the United States under the kind of arrangement they're currently agitating for. The Catholics, evangelicals, and Latter-Day Saints, for example are all traditionally disfavored religious groups who have only managed to thrive in this country because the Establishment Clause defends their religious freedom through tolerant neutrality. Their attacks on "tolerance" and "liberalism" as a kind of persecution is an attack on the very things that have shielded them from persecution in this country. It's like watching people trying to tear the roof off their own house. They might succeed in leading this country into a new period of deep religious intolerance. What they won't succeed in doing is escaping that intolerance themselves. It wouldn't just be the people that the religious right dislikes who would become targets if they ever got their way. And God forbid that they ever do.


Renaissance Girl said...

Damn skippy. I have always been mortified by the mentality of some of my co-religionists, which seems to me to amount to running through the door and then slamming it behind you so that no other persecuted group can get in. But isn't that the model that disenfranchised groups usually follow when they become enfranchised? That is, to police the borders of that enfranchisement?

Doctor Cleveland said...

I think that's absolutely right, RG. And I feel a similar frustration, even if my own co-religionists got through the door a bit earlier than yours.

But I also think there's a foolish attack on the establishment who accepted us for being too accepting, which presumes that there's no latent hostility toward us. And that is patently not true. If there's no room left for broad tolerance, we're going to find out that some of us have only just barely been tolerated by our neighbors.