Romney and Secularism

I didn’t care for Romney’s speech, but despite the best efforts of Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Kevin Drum, I’m still not convinced it was a war cry against non-religious people.

I didn’t watch the speech, so perhaps there was something in the delivery that I missed. But I’ve read through it a couple of times, and I still don’t see anything that sticks out to me as a slam against nonbelievers. Instead, his statements fall into a couple of categories:

1) Arguments that the American political system cannot and should not shut its doors to religious belief or expression. Basically, he says that it’s not unreasonable for a politician to talk about his faith in public. This is a point in contention, I know, but it’s not equivalent to waging battle on nonbelievers, only on the idea that people of faith should clam up when running for office (or any time, really).

2) Arguments that faith has historically played an important role in American life. Now, we could go back and forth all day long over how much of a role faith has played in American politics and history, but it’s hardly shocking or controversial that the role is not marginal. Nor, I think, do any of these statements constitute attacks on nonbelievers.

3) Arguments that freedom and religion are vitally linked. “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,” Romney claims. Now, an atheist might take offense to this. As Kevin Drum wrote, “I’m not religious, and yet, mirabile dictum, I still manage to support freedom.” Quite true. But notice that Romney did not say that only religiously observant people can support freedom. Nor did he say nonbelievers were incapable of being good members of or engaging with a free society. Instead, he essentially said that religion—presumably in whatever form: institutions, individuals, or simply ideas—is a part of a healthy society, with the implication that everyone ought to be able to coexist with it, whether they believe or not.

4) Resistance to aggressive, intolerant secularism. Now, as I previously argued, it seemed to me that the broad theme of the speech was a plea for respect. So it makes sense that it would speak ill not of generic secularism, but of secularism that seeks to stamp out religious expression. Romney says that some people “seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.” I can see why nonbelievers might have trouble with this, but he isn’t arguing against all nonbelievers, only against secularists who want to wage war on displays of faith.

The crucial thing to remember here is that Christians in this country, like so many interest groups bound together by belief or ideology, tend to see themselves as an embattled minority. (We’ll save the debate on whether this is true for another day, or better yet, never.) Because of that perception, they view secularism as a threat. But when most Christians talk about “secularism,” they’re not talking about ordinary nonbelievers, or the right to be a nonbeliever, or political pundits who go to brunch rather than Sunday School.

They’re talking about those few (generally irritating) people who they see as wanting to roll back religious rights and expression. They hear “secularism” and think not of the people who merely want to skip out on belief, but of those who want to fight it, or at least bottle it up and hide it away—most obviously the Christopher Hitchens/Richard Dawkins crowd. It’s understandable that nonbelievers not familiar with the particulars of this mindset might see warnings against the creep of secularism as attacks, but I really don’t think they’re meant as such. None of this makes Romney’s speech any better, but I do think it’s inaccurate to label it a diatribe against the nonreligious.