illegitimacy revisited

One more (rather belated) look at Peter's post on Ezra Klein's post on Romney’s speech. (Everybody caught up now?)

Klein wrote, “Romney, by prominently proclaiming his fealty to traditional Christian doctrine, just said, essentially, that [my views] are illegitimate.” I hope Klein doesn’t mean that — I hope that was just a moment of carelessness. If merely by proclaiming a particular belief a person is declaring other beliefs “illegitimate,” then we’re all doing that all the time. Now, to be sure, when Romney said “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind” he was necessarily saying that people who disagree with that claim are wrong, just as when Klein denies the truth-claims of Christianity or Mormonism or [insert religion or denomination of Klein's choice here] he is saying that believers in them are wrong.

But saying that you believe someone’s views wrong is not the same as saying that you believe them illegitimate. I take it that, in discussions about government and the public sphere, “illegitimate” usually means “not worthy of serious discussion,” or “not one of the options reasonable people consider,” or even “not to be acknowledged as a debatable question lest we damage the body politic.” Thus, monarchist or segregationist views are (for different reasons) illegitimate positions in our current political order. But there are many other views that we think wrong without declaring them simply out of bounds.

So if Romney did declare any views illegitimate it wasn’t “by prominently proclaiming his fealty” — “fealty”? — “to traditional Christian doctrine,” but rather by insisting that “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,” and then only on a particular construal of those words. I tend to think that Romney was merely affirming the point that James describes below: “The bottom line from where the Founders were standing was that, indeed, no individual must profess any faith to be an American — but many people, if not most, must profess some faith, if our political liberty and our free government is to be preserved.” But if he was really saying that only religious people can sustain political freedoms, then perhaps he was declaring some views — the views of atheists — as illegitimate.

One more point. The claim that “religion” serves as a guarantor or at least an encourager of political freedom strikes me as highly dubious. Not all religions have an interest in freedom, or see it as a positive good. And even religions that do have such an interest may define it in ways that can’t be assimilated to our notions of political freedom. There’s no connection between achieving moksha through freedom from samsara and, say, the Bill of Rights.