The Debate in Las Vegas

Last night’s GOP debate made headlines because of the sharp elbows thrown, especially between former Gov. Mitt Romney and Gov. Rick Perry. In that exchange, both men lost. Perry seemed truculent and picky, harping on Romney’s having employed a company that, in turn, employed undocumented workers. But, Romney looked weak when he invoked the rules and turned to host Anderson Cooper for help. Very unpresidential on both men’s part.

And, the fact that everyone on the stage seems to think that “we should all trust the markets” never ceases to astound: Less than four years after an economic crash that was entirely caused by the market, how can its prestige have been restored so quickly?

I would add one other comment on the exchange between Romney and Perry. Both men, and indeed the entire GOP evidently, have turned an adjective into a noun. They referred to the undocumented workers at issue as “illegals.” It tells you all you need to know, and all you need to fear, about the current climate within the GOP that men and women, who in this case were undoubtedly hard workers for I fancy tending the grounds of the Romney estate is hard work, are reduced to such a derisive term. No matter whether they are fathers or mothers, husbands or wives, people of faith, people with dreams for themselves and their children, they are “illegals.” The use of that word in that way, as a noun, is chilling.

The debate touched on both a critical philosophic divide within the GOP and on the subject of religious bigotry. These were, for me, the most interesting parts of the debate.

At one point, Congressman Ron Paul said: “We need to see everybody as an individual. And to me, seeing everybody as an individual means their liberties are protected as individuals and they’re treated that way and they’re never penalized that way.” A few minutes later, when former Sen. Rick Santorum entered the fray, he said:

“I’d like to address the issue that the gentleman brought up, which is, what are we going to say to the Latino community? And not one person mentioned the issue of family, faith, marriage. This is a community that is a faith-filled community, that family is at the center of that community. I disagree in some respects with Congressman Paul, who says the country is founded on the individual. The basic building block of a society is not an individual. It’s the family. That’s the basic unit of society. (APPLAUSE) And the Latino community understands that. They understand the importance of faith and marriage. They understand that bond that builds that solid foundation, and that inculcation of faith and religious freedom. And I think the Latino community knows that’s at stake in this country. There’s a lot going on right now that’s eroding our religious freedom, that’s eroding the traditional values of marriage and family. And there’s one candidate up here who consistently sounds that theme.”
Cong. Paul replied: “Well, I would like to explain that rights don’t come in bunches. Rights come as individuals, they come from a God, and they come as each individual has a right to life and liberty.” Certainly, in American jurisprudence, rights do not “come in bunches.” But, as Lew Daly pointed out in his essay at Democracy to which I have called attention before, American jurisprudence suffers from its failure to grant legal significance to the rights of organizations like churches.

Santorum is correct that he is the only candidate who consistently sounds this theme of the importance of family. And, he is also correct that Latinos come from a culture that celebrates the family, and especially the extended family, in ways we in the U.S. no longer do and that they do not bring from their culture the libertarianism of Cong. Paul. The same can be said, mutatis mutandi, for evangelicals. As much as they give voice to the importance of individual liberty, their understanding of individual liberty is very different from that which animates Mr. Paul. This is the central philosophic conundrum facing the GOP today: Are they to be a party of libertarians or a party devoted to a more traditional, and embedded, sense of human values?

The issue of religious bigotry came up, with Mr. Cooper quoting Pastor Jeffress’ comments about Mormonism being a “cult.” Cooper then asked: “Should voters pay attention to a candidate’s religion?” Santorum was the first to respond, saying:
“I think they should pay attention to the candidate’s values, what the candidate stands for. (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) That’s what is at play. And the person’s faith — and you look at that faith and what the faith teaches with respect to morals and values that are reflected in that person’s belief structure. So that’s — those are important things.
I — I’m a Catholic. Catholic has social teachings. Catholic has teachings as to what’s right and what’s wrong. And those are legitimate things for voters to look at, to say if you’re a faithful Catholic, which I try to be — fall short all the time, but I try to be — and — and it’s a legitimate thing to look at as to what the tenets and teachings of that faith are with respect to how you live your life and — and how you would govern this country.
With respect to what is the road to salvation, that’s a whole different story. That’s not applicable to what — what the role is of being the president or a senator or any other job.”
The problem here is obvious: Is the “road to salvation” a “whole different story” from what “the tenets and teachings of that faith are with respect to how you live your life?” I do not wish here to revisit the Reformation debate over works. But, our ethics are rooted in our dogmas. We follow the teachings of Jesus because we believe that He rose from the dead. But, America has long reduced religion to ethics in the public square as Santorum suggests. This certainly has permitted us, as a nation, to stay away from sectarianism in our politics and to limit public bigotry on religious grounds, both of which are good things. But, from a religious point of view, let us realize how this reduction of religion to ethics distorts our perception of religion itself.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich then jumped in:

“Well, I think if the question is, does faith matter? Absolutely. How can you have a country which is founded on truths which begins we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights? How can you have the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which says religion, morality and knowledge being important, education matters. That’s the order: religion, morality and knowledge. Now, I happen to think that none of us should rush in judgment of others in the way in which they approach God. And I think that all of us up here I believe would agree. (APPLAUSE)
But I think all of us would also agree that there’s a very central part of your faith in how you approach public life. And I, frankly, would be really worried if somebody assured me that nothing in their faith would affect their judgments, because then I’d wonder, where’s your judgment — how can you have judgment if you have no faith? And how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray? (APPLAUSE) Who you pray to, how you pray, how you come close to God is between you and God. But the notion that you’re endowed by your creator sets a certain boundary on what we mean by America.”

The tensions in these sentences are obvious. Should not a morally upright atheist have the right to enter public life? Gingrich – and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 – get the order right in my estimation, first faith, then moral, and finally knowledge, but does that not contradict what Santorum suggested? To be clear, I suspect any group of seven Democratic candidates would be even less articulate on the subject. And, let it also be clear that the six men and one woman on the stage last night are not running to be theologian-in-chief. But, if you want evidence of the inevitable tensions in American public life between our religious ideas and the Enlightenment values that informed the founding fathers, there it was.

There will be a month before the next debate. In that time, candidates will start airing ads and finding other ways to make news. The campaign goes to the micro level for awhile. Who knows what the race will look like a month from now? But, one thing is certain. The tensions within American public life over the role of religion are not going anywhere.

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