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Mitt Romney, American Civil Religion and a Strategy of Lies

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Crossposted on Tikkun Daily.

by Valerie Elverton-Dixon
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has taken to quoting a hymn of the American civil religion.

“Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain. America! America! God shed his grace on thee and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”

Religion is the transcendence that serves as ligature to bind us together, and for many Americans, America is that transcendence.  Americanism becomes religion.  Mormon, Catholic, Evangelical, Protestant, Atheist, Jewish and others all bend the knee to the nation and to its God.

The problem with the civil religion is that its transcendence is not transcendent enough. Its moral horizons are limited to the short-term interests of the nation as perceived by flawed individuals working within a deeply flawed political/economic framework.  And when a politician stands up and proclaims his love for the country while loading his stump speeches with lies upon lies, that moral horizon has dwindled down to the puny size of one politician’s political ambitions.

Yet, even the traditions of the civil religion recognize that the country is ever in the process of perfection. Verse two of the hymn Romney quotes says:

“O beautiful for pilgrim’s feet, whose stern impassioned stress a thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness: America! America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm they soul in self control, thy liberty in law.”

The United States, as everything conceived by human beings, is not and has never been flawless.  Those who speak of American exceptionalism as if the United States is God’s chosen nation are trading with a counterfeit currency.

Nearly one in two Americans are either low-income or live in poverty.  Income inequality is a fact of American life that amounts to structural violence.  Fifty million Americans live without health insurance. This amounts to a denial of basic human rights that the Affordable Care Act will correct come 2014.  This country incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world, and those locked up are disproportionately black, brown and poor.  These are systemic inadequacies that no one person, president or not, can repair.

If Mitt Romney loves the nation the way he says he does, he ought to address these issues and stop telling lies to the nation he claims to love.

Chapter 13 of the First Letter to the Corinthians says love “rejoices in the truth.”  Romney has been caught time after time rejoicing in falsehoods.  I say Romney’s lies are a patronizing nice-nasty way to say that President Obama is Other than American.  Greg Sargent of the Washington Post says there is a method to Romney’s strategy of lies.

“They’re all about conveying a sense that you should find Obama’s intentions toward America vaguely suspect, that Obama harbors a deep seated indifference even hostility towards the fundamentals that make America what it is, and that Obama is in some basic way undermining the foundation of American life as we know it.”

Paul Krugman, columnist for The New York Times , calls Romney’s strategy of lies “post-truth politics.”

“Overall, Mr. Obama’s positions on economic policy resemble those that moderate Republicans used to espouse.  Yet, Mr. Romney portrays the president as the second coming of Fidel Castro and seems confident that he will pay no price for making stuff up.

“Welcome to post-truth politics.”

PolitFact.com has called Romney a “pants on fire liar” for his accusation that President Obama has gone around the world “apologizing for America.”  It concludes:

“On the substance of Romney’s charge, we believe that what we wrote in March 2010 still stands.  While Obama’s speeches contained some criticisms of past U.S. actions, those passages were typically leavened by praise for the United States and its ideals, and he frequently mentioned how other countries have erred as well.  We found not a single full-throated apology in the bunch.”

An elementary reading of American history shows that the United States has much for which to apologize. The leader of a great nation ought not to be slow to acknowledge the nation’s flaws and to lead the nation in correcting them.  This stance is especially important in foreign affairs because it shows respect to the peoples the nation has wronged.  If Mitt Romney’s moral compass is so off center that he cannot see this, he has no business seeking the votes of his fellow citizens to be president of the United States.

Over the next few months voters will have more of an opportunity to see whether or not Romney’s walk will match his talk.  Love is expansive. Love requires respect. Love insists upon justice in all of its iterations.  Will Romney’s love for America cause him to expand liberty in law to women, same-sex couples and undocumented workers?  To love the nation in the abstract is only sounding brass and tinkling symbol, only cacophonous noise, if he does not show love to the nation’s people, especially those suffering from the vagaries of a free market economy.

So far, he has shown a callous disregard for people who are losing their homes to foreclosure by suggesting that these families are left to the not so tender mercies of an a/moral market.

American civil religion is idolatrous when we make the nation our ultimate concern and the object of our love.  One may love the nation, but the nation does not and cannot love one in return.  It is flesh-and-blood human beings, both in the nation and in the world, who love in return. And they are the ones who matter.

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