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Romney on Faith in America: Encouraging and Disappointing

Mitt Romney’s speech on Faith in America was both encouraging and disappointing. I appreciate the tone of his speech and the fact that he seriously addressed the issue of religious liberty. I commend him for clearly stating that religious tolerance is not reserved only for faiths with which we agree and for warning against imposing a religious test on any candidate for public office.

At the same time, I’m concerned with how much of the speech was designed as red-meat for conservative Christian voters. He equated the right to life movement with the struggle for civil rights and abolition. He warned of the secularist boogeyman who would take religion out of the public square. And he completely ignored the values, rights, and contributions of millions of non-religious Americans.

By saying, “freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom,” Mr. Romney showed a clear misunderstanding of American history, our Constitution, and the nature of religion. Fortunately, those who founded this nation and wrote the Constitution understood that freedom would endure and religion would thrive only if the institutions of religion and government were kept separate. Too many of our elected officials today believe in their religious freedom but not yours; they want to use government to impose their narrow religious values on the rest of us.

While Mr. Romney declared that religious doctrine should not determine public policy, a few lines later he articulated a ringing promise that his religious convictions would inform his political decisions if he is elected to sit in the Oval Office. It also struck me as a cheap shot when he spoke out against those who would defend a high wall between church and state. Personally, I prefer the vision of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison over Mr. Romney’s.

Whoever is elected president will stand in the great tradition of national leadership only by underscoring his or her commitment to the founders' vision and, thus, their commitment to assuring separation between the dictates of religious faith, and the promise that every president must make to protect and defend the Constitution.

I recommend that every candidate for public office go back and read the religion clauses of the United States Constitution, contained in the First Amendment and in Article VI, which prohibits any religious test for public office. I also urge candidates to read or listen to John F. Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, which was one of the strongest statements of support for religious freedom and church-state separation ever made. Candidate Kennedy straightforwardly took on the issue of the role that his personal religion would play in his public service as president. His vision of the nation was a contemporary articulation of the vision of the Constitution.

Every candidate who runs for office in the United States should be able to pledge to American voters no less than Senator Kennedy promised.

Rev. Dr. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Rev. Gaddy is the host of State of Belief, a weekly radio show carried on AirAmerica. He is co-author, with Barry W. Lynn, of First Freedom First: A Citizen's Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, forthcoming from Beacon Press