Mitt Romney is running for president, and the Christian right runs the country. The result is that a Mormon felt compelled to make a speech in which he pretended to defend the separation of church and state, and the freedom of religion. What he was doing, in fact, was pandering to a crucial voting block whose members don't believe in either one, but whose support he needs to get elected.
The speech was lauded as a flashback to 1960, when John Kennedy made a famous address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, addressing its concerns that a Catholic president might take orders from the Vatican. In that speech, Kennedy declared, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute." This is not the message that Romney delivered.
Desperately in need of the votes that have guaranteed George W. Bush the last two elections, Romney reminded us that the Constitution forbids any religious "test," and that personal faith has always been a vital part of what forms the character of American presidents. But everyone knew this already. The real message could only be heard between the lines.
America has devolved from a nation in which Kennedy needed to reassure Baptist ministers that he stood with them in the absolute separation of church and state, to our current president's claim that Jesus Christ is the philosopher who has had the most influence on his life. Now it is impossible to get elected unless one professes faith in Jesus, and claims to pray daily.
The reason: Christian fundamentalists want to continue to impose their "religious test" for holding public office, and want nothing to stop them from continuing to violate the separation of church and state. Romney dragged out all the old canards: the nation's founders were orthodox Christians; the Declaration of Independence refers to "the creator," which guided the American revolutionaries; and "In God We Trust" is right there on our money, just like "under God" is in our pledge (conveniently omitting the fact that the founders didn't put it there, but it was added in the Fifties, at the height of McCarthyism, to set us apart from the Soviets).
Most infuriating, and most unlike Kennedy, Romney fed the Christian right its favorite line when he complained that the world can be divided up into two groups: those who believe that religion has a place in public life, and those who favor "the elimination of religion from the public square." His listeners got the message. A Romney presidency won't be about taking order from Salt Lake City, but about allowing the Christian right to put up 2-ton idols of the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn. Then he dutifully uttered the words that now comprise the true religious test for public office: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God."
Candidates are now being asked in public debates what they believe about the Bible, and whether they believe "every word of this book." This is hardly an encouraging sign that the separation of church and state is alive and well. Romney's speech was another low point in American politics. Disguised as a high-minded rhetorical moment, it only served to illustrate how far we have come from 1960.
Enter Mike Huckabee, who may be the least qualified of all the candidates, but who passes the test " a lightweight Southern governor who drives the Republican establishment crazy, but who knows how to talk about Jesus. Sound familiar?
Meyers is minister of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City and professor of rhetoric in the philosophy department at Oklahoma City University. His sermons can be heard at 9:30 a.m. Sundays on KOKC-AM 1520.