New York, N.Y. – Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney defended the rights of atheists in a speech in Manhattan on Thursday night.
Recalling criticisms that he left nonbelievers out of his December speech on faith in America, Romney said: “Upon reflection, I came to understand that while I could defend their absence from my address, I had missed an opportunity . . . an opportunity to clearly assert that non-believers have just as great a stake as believers in defending religious liberty.”
He continued: “If a society takes it upon itself to prescribe and proscribe certain streams of belief — to prohibit certain less-favored strains of conscience — it may be the non-believer who is among the first to be condemned. A coercive monopoly of belief threatens everyone, whether we are talking about those who search the philosophies of men or follow the words of God.”
”We are all in this together,” Romney said. “Religious liberty and liberality of thought flow from the common conviction that it is freedom, not coercion, that exalts the individual just as it raises up the nation.”
Romney made his remarks at a dinner sponsored by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The group honored the former Massachusetts governor and his wife, Ann, with its Canterbury Medal, for “resolutely and publicly refus[ing] to render to Caesar that which is God’s.”
The event was both an opportunity for Romney to revisit the speech he gave on religion in College Station, Texas, last December as well as an opportunity for an enthusiastic crowd of religious conservatives to thank the Romney family for defending religious liberty in America and for being themselves models of faithful people in public life.
The gratitude was most adamantly expressed by Ann Corkery, a supporter of the Romney presidential campaign who chaired Thursday night’s event. A Catholic, Corkery thanked Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as you may have heard during the campaign), for his speech. She called it a rare instance in which “a serious thought got to break through the noise.”
In the Becket speech, Romney also defended the contention that “religion requires freedom and that freedom requires religion.
“I love how plainly that thought was put by John Adams,” Romney said: “Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell.”
The governor continued: “I don’t mean to suggest that truth can only be found in religion or that morality exists only among believers. But I do believe, like Adams and Washington and Hamilton, that ‘national morality,’ as Hamilton put it, ‘require[s] the aid of . . . divinely authoritative religion.’ I believe that religion is the most effective bulwark against moral relativism — which, as I have seen through my life, can be so malleable that it can label ‘evil good, and good evil,’ as it says in Isaiah, and ‘put darkness for light, and light for darkness.’”
In an interview with National Review Online, Romney called the December speech “the most memorable part of my campaign.” He said, “I had an opportunity that other people didn’t have, and I wanted to take advantage of that opportunity to talk about religious liberty.”
Asked if he wished he had given it sooner, he said, “You know, I haven’t given that any thought. It seemed like the right time, and in retrospect it still seems like it was the right time. People were considering the candidates at that point. There was a lot of interest in my faith, and it meant that there was an opportunity to talk about faith in America generally. That was the right time; much earlier, and people wouldn’t have been listening.”
It was enough to make a Romney-for-president supporter nostalgic and, frankly, utterly depressed about the loss in the primaries. Except for one thing: On Wednesday, John McCain had talked about religious liberty, too. He said: “There is no right more fundamental to a free society than the free practice of religion. Behind walls of prisons and persecuted before our very eyes in places like China, Iran, Burma, Sudan, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia are tens of thousands of people whose only crime is to worship God in their own way. No society that denies religious freedom can ever rightly claim to be good in some other way.”
The Arizona senator continued: “And no person can ever be true to any faith that believes in the dignity of all human life if they do not act out of concern for those whose dignity is assailed because of their faith. As President, I intend to make religious freedom a subject of great importance for the United States in our relations with other nations. I will work in close concert with democratic allies to raise the prominence of religious freedom in every available forum. Whether in bilateral negotiations, or in various multi-national organizations to which America belongs, I will make respect for the basic principle of religious freedom a priority in international relations.”
John McCain put his life on the line for liberty — including religious liberty — when he was a fighter pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam. The witness of men and women in public life like Mitt and Ann Romney — who talked openly and honestly about religion in general, and their own religion, in a hostile political environment — reminds us that the ideas in McCain’s speech are rooted very deeply in the American character, and will continue to have a transformational potential in our future.
Beyond even the power of polls and primaries.