Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thoughts on Romney's speech on Religion in America

I've listened to Mitt Romney's 2007 speech on religion in America a couple of times. I suspect that it was an important speech, comparable to Obama's in the same campaign, making the case that Romney's Mormon religion should not be a cause for voting against him for President. Not surprisingly, the speech seemed carefully crafted and well delivered. However, there were a couple of points that bother me.

Romney says "our forebearers came here from England seeking freedom of religion." He seemed to be thinking of the Pilgrims, but surely the people who founded the Jamestown colony were not seeking freedom of religion; they were seeking wealth.

Those of us who had slaves or indentured servants as our forebearers certainly do not descend from people who came here for freedom of religion. How about the Chinese who came to build the railroads (before the Chinese exclusion acts)?

The Indians didn't come to the United States at all, they were here before there was a United States. So too were Hispanics in place before the United States took Texas, California, and the area in between from Mexico, and took Puerto Rico from Spain. Those people in fact suffered prejudice for their religions after becoming Americans that they had not experienced before. How about the Inuit in Alaska and the native Hawaiians?

Immigrants in Ellis Island waiting room.
How about the millions who immigrated from Catholic countries into the United States in the "Know Nothing" time  -- Irish, Poles, Italians, and Germans -- who came from countries where their religion was the majority to a country where they experienced religious prejudice.  They came for economic opportunity. Millions of people have come here more recently from Spanish speaking countries, again mostly Catholic, and while some have come for sanctuary from violence in their original country, most if not all have come for economic opportunity.  I am the son of immigrants, and my parents came here for economic opportunity from places in which they had perfect freedom of religion already.

How about the Jews who came here to escape from the Nazis during the Holocaust? Oh, we don't need to think about them, since they are not here; they were denied entry by a prejudiced government of a prejudiced people.

The words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty don't say send me people seeking religious liberty.
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Were Romney to have been accurate he would have talked not about the few descendants of the Pilgrims, but the many more descendants of people who experienced prejudice against their religions (and their race). He might justly have spoken of the search for better lives of those ancestors, and of how the nation is failing their descendants today. But he tends not to see his campaign as serving those people who are now poor, nor those in the middle class who are suffering a loss in welbeing.

In the speech Romney also cites the words from Mathew:
"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink."
But I have heard him disparage the 47 percent (who will vote for Obama), and I don't believe he thinks the government has a responsibility to feed the hungry or to give the thirsty drink. I don't think he realizes that this country was built by people -- poor people, often enslaved people -- who were looking for a better life for themselves and if not for themselves for their children and their descendants. It is probably hard to relate to the real aspirations of most people if you are born with a silver spoon in your mouth. The man who could see the way Chinese workers were treated in their factories and still invest in them, exporting American jobs to China, is not someone who naturally empathizes with most Americans.

In the speech Romney also uses the term "secular" while spending much of the time implying that Judeo-Christian religious beliefs should dominate public life. I believe that one of the great achievements of American democracy is that we treat some things as secular and some as religious. We permit freedom in the realm of religion, but keep our public schools and our government secular. This is true of domestic policy and of foreign policy. We are no more supportive of Jewish than Muslim countries, at least not because of their religion. Nor do we distinguish in foreign policy between Sunni and Shiite, between Muslim and Hindu or Buddhist. Romney may have inadvertently biased his treatment to deny the secular in American life and government, but what if he were elected and let such inadvertent biases influence his decisions as president.

1 comment:

John Daly said...

Incidentally, did you notice how much younger Romney looked 4 and 1/2 years ago? He also seemed to speak more forcefully than he has recently. I guess years of constant campaigning have taken a toll.