The following is a statement by Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, on Mitt Romney’s Dec. 6 “Faith in America” speech:

Mitt Romney is right that religion and morality are core convictions in American society. Our freedom depends on this, I completely agree. Without the ability to manage our lives morally, the state steps into the vacuum, both in response to public demand and to serve the state’s own interests in expanding power.

But soon after spelling this out, in part, he makes this bold claim, which I believe repeats John F. Kennedy’s error: “Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.”

So here we have an odd tension. Religion matters, he says. But religious authority does not and should not matter in the management of our public lives. If this proposition had been believed by the kings of Europe in the Middle Ages, freedom would never have been born, for it was precisely the jealousy of religious authority that led to limits on the state and kept that state at bay.

Similarly, it was the churches before and after the American Revolution which said no to the leviathan state, precisely because it had intruded into areas that more properly belong to religious authority. The churches didn’t merely mind their own business; they spoke to the whole of society, and we should be thankful for that.

Maybe we are not accustomed to thinking of religion as a limit on government. But this has largely been so and continues to be so. It was the Catholic Church that beat back communism in Eastern Europe and just last week prevented dictatorship in Venezuela. In our own country, the churches are the main protectors of religious liberty, for they tend to resist intrusion by the state at every level.

The idea of authority is inescapable. If public officeholders are not to obey religious authority, what authority do they submit to? Perhaps we can say the Constitution but the signers of that document too held fast to religious convictions. More likely the authority to which they submit is legislation and its enforcement arm, meaning that to the extent that they brush off their religious institutions, they will tend to become obsequious toward the state.

For my part, I find it strange that American culture should require someone running for president to make a break with his or own religious authority. This strikes me as an attack on the conscience. The right question we should be asking: What does the religious authority teach about the role of the state?

  • Insight

    I think the distinction Romney is drawing here is that religion matters very much to him in his personal life, and also in his public life, inasmuch as it does not infringe on others religious liberties as well. In other words, he closed the threat that authorities from his church could tell him to commit an unconstitutional act that he would then be obliged to obey. Would you prefer that a U.S. president put the commands of their church leaders over constitutional requirements?

  • Dale Milne

    Good for you, Rev. Sirico! Yes, there is that secular tradition of separation from [established] Church (not religion) and [pluralistic, multifarious-branched] State (not nation). Yet a nation will be led ineluctably by some religion or religion-like philosophy. Ideas are an inescapable fact of human life, and social ideas, i.e. religious, philosophical, and ideological, are an inescapable fact of collective society, i.e. government.

    There is nothing particularly wrong about having a State Religion. The historical precedent is strong; the examples have not all been brutal; States without a State Religion or some dominant religious influence have been far more brutal.

    That aside, religion is paramount in the life of the religiously devout. Surely there are differing levels of commitment. Some adherents seem to ignore the most sacred principles of their religions. Hence, a past president (or few) may have committed adultery in knowing violation of their denomination’s (to say nothing of G-d’s) strict exhortations against the practice.

    It is impossible to believe that the contrary would never occur – that a president adhering to a particular denomination should establish a policy or commit action as a consequence of a teaching of his church. If religion is important to a politician, it will influence his decisions. If religion is not important, relativism and ambition will be his paramount influences.

    If Christianity is important to a government, its members will seek to promote the spiritual welfare, morality, and material opportunity of its citizens. If Christianity is not important, and if religion is “a private matter”, the government will seek material rewards at the cost of the spiritual. We will have cheap mortgages and universal health care; but we will also see the Cherokees displaced for gold, Jehovah’s Witnesses incarcerated for not participating in government and school, Mormon families broken up for a man having more than one wife at a time (but not if he has them one after another in rapid and endless succession), Children of G-d kidnapped, Hare Krishnas assaulted, Moonies deprogrammed, and the Branch Davidians massacred for a gun barrel an inch shorter than law allows.

    Thank G-d the United States is (or was) a Christian nation. Candidates who claim they won’t bring their religious convictions to their work with them lack both courage and conviction.

  • AJR

    Ok. Fair Enough.
    So what, specifically, does Catholicism say about the role of the state.
    Any Encyclicals to point to?

  • David Pendleton

    Fr. Sirico,

    You have raised an excellent point. If a Church does not have authority over its adherents with respect to their behavior and conduct — whether public or private — what authority does a Church really have over their adherents? I agree with this proposition. There is a tension, if not contradiction, in Romney’s remarks.

    However, I think what Romney was attempting — however inartfully — to express was that should the authorities of his Church seek to compel him to commit acts at odds with the Constitution or the laws of this Nation, the American people can rest assured that he would not obey such commands having taken an oath to uphold the Constitution. That is the sentiment he was seeking to express. Or at least that is how I interpreted what he said. He is allaying fears — perhaps unreasonable fears — of Americans who are sometimes wary of those with faith commitments.

  • Dale Milne

    To David Pendelton’s remarks, with which I agree, I would point out a problem with this issue.

    If Mr. Romney has ‘gone through the temple’ and taken the usual vows, then he has also taken an oath to obey his church leaders. They have, in fact, instructed him not to criticize them even if they are wrong.

    If his two oaths are in contradiction, then which will he better honor? I suspect, having been in environments myself, nor am I alone, in which I was required to obey conflicting orders, that even he himself will not know the answer to that until such unhappy time as the two oaths should find themselves in conflict.

    I do not know if it is possible for him to give an absolute answer to which he would obey – the Constitution, which Mormons are to uphold, or “the Brethren”, whom Mormons are to obey.

  • miker

    John F. Kennedy’s error? How can you believe that what Kennedy said was an error? The president should be listening to the citizens and what they have to say and take advice from congress, the senate and the other branches of government. And not be going to their church for advice on issues that will affect all of the countries citizens. If public officeholders are not to obey religious authority, what authority do they submit to? That’s pretty strong to be asking who should they submit to. How about no one in particular if they start submitting to church figures or other’s who for some reason seem to influence their decision what happens next? Our economy is at risk, employment, working capital, education, the list will go on. Don’t find it strange the Americans want a president to as you say make a break from his own religious beliefs, it’s really not a bad idea. With a country this large that has as many religions as we do, to have a president be neutral when it comes to religion and his decision making would be nice.

  • Sedona

    There is a very easy solution to all this rhetoric, just vote for Obama, he is my choice.

  • http://www.fromthemaas.com marc

    Hope! Change! Hope! Hope! Change!

    Substance? Not so much. Socialism? Oh heck yeah!

  • Sedona

    Marc, I checked out your site, very well done. I noticed you said one of your goals was to “advancing the boundaries of rampant comedic stupidity” so, I will add this, would you rather have Obama in the White House or Hillary with Bill under the desk?

  • http://www.fromthemaas.com marc

    Neither, thank you very much.

  • Sedona

    OK, I understand where you are coming from, and as a previous AZ resident, could support Mc Cain but definitely never if he pairs up with Condoleza Rice (she is such a puppet).

  • Pingback: Mitt Romney, the Mormon Question, and Presidential Elections | @ActonInstitute PowerBlog