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The sociologist Peter Berger once observed that, if India is the world’s most religious country and Sweden the least, the United States is a country of Indians ruled by Swedes.
He made this comment at a time when there was something of a consensus among our elites that religion was a basically private matter — one which ought to play little or no role in public policy debates.
That consensus has broken down, to the point where it’s routine for presidential candidates to parade their supposed piety, and even to claim it’s important that the nation be led by, as Republican hopeful Mitt Romney recently put it, “a person of faith.”
This view regarding the role of religion in American politics has given birth to its own set of rather bizarre orthodoxies. On this view, it’s crucial that our political leaders be sincere religious believers. But apparently it’s of no importance what religious beliefs they actually hold, as long as they have “faith.”
When you think about it — which is something people like Romney don’t want you to do, for reasons that will become clear — this makes no sense.
What would one think of someone who said that it was important for our leaders to be “persons of politics,” while remaining indifferent to just what sort of political beliefs they held? Imagine taking the view that it made no difference whether one was a Maoist or a royalist or a Republican, as long as one’s political beliefs were sincere.
Or consider a scientist who claims that, while he personally believes that global warming is going to destroy civilization, his opinion has no more value than that of a scientist who denies that global warming represents any sort of serious problem. The important thing, he says, isn’t the truth or falsehood of their respective views, but rather that he and the holder of the diametrically opposed opinion are both “persons of science.”
In the context of political or scientific belief such assertions would obviously be absurd on their face, but when it comes to religion people say things like this every day. Just look at what happened to Ann Coulter when she was impolitic enough to point out that, as a Christian, she thinks Christianity is true, and therefore by logical necessity truer than, among many other belief systems, Judaism.
Coulter has a long history of making comments that are as idiotic as they are inflammatory, but in this case much of the criticism aimed at her illustrates the weird etiquette that dominates our public discussion of religion. For example, American Jewish Congress president Richard Sideman claimed “Coulter’s assertion that Jews are somehow religiously imperfect smacks of the most odious anti-Jewish sentiment.”
In other words, religious belief is apparently a unique kind of belief, which requires believing that one’s views regarding the most important questions in the world — things that by comparison to which all political and scientific disputes are insignificant — are no better or worse than anyone else’s views regarding these questions of supposedly infinite importance.
Which brings me back to Mitt Romney, Person of Faith. Romney is a Mormon, which means that, to the extent he adheres to the tenets of his religion, he believes in various doctrines that, in the eyes of orthodox Christians, are abominable heresies.
Now according to Romney this should be a matter of indifference, because after all what counts is whether or not one has “faith.”
In this way a disagreement about, for example, the divinity of Christ — something which innumerable people have been burnt at the stake for denying — is transformed into a trivial detail, of no real importance.
With “faith” like this, who needs atheism?
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)