What a country. In one corner, the president of the United States endorses same-sex marriage, evoking his personal evolution with the Golden Rule, "You know, treat others the way you want to be treated." In the other corner, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican candidate for president, addresses an audience of 35,000 at the Liberty University commencement, one of the largest Christian universities in the country. He says that central to our rise to global leadership is "our Judeo-Christian" tradition." When he evokes marriage as "a relationship between one man and one woman," he receives a standing ovation.
The Founding Fathers would be pleased. They wanted the vocabulary of religious tradition to enjoy vigorous debate in the public square. They knew that the Bible was subject to different interpretations and in the Old World people went to war over those differences of opinion. The bloody massacres after the European Reformation were recent history.
So they made sure God makes no appearance in the Constitution and religion in governing was made prominent by its absence. No religious test would be required for office, and the establishment of religion by the state was prohibited. When Alexander Hamilton was asked why God is never mentioned in the Constitution, he joked, "We forgot." For a man known for his prodigious memory, he was a canny reader of human nature. When John Adams was asked to state his religious creed, he was succinct and kept it to four words: "Be just and good."
That left lots of room for political discussion where diversity of religious interpretation thrives and civic culture maintains unity. It was in this tradition that Mitt Romney gave his eloquent commencement address on Saturday: "Men and women of every faith, and good people with none at all, sincerely strive to do right and lead a purpose-driven life."
In a speech that was remarkable for never mentioning his own Mormon faith, he drew on quotations from a diverse group of inspiring thinkers who, in their own way, stressed the importance of the Judeo-Christian culture and conscience with "its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life." He was passionate and articulate in appealing to issues that unite us: "The American culture promotes personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the value of education, the merit of service, devotion to a purpose greater than self and, at the foundation, the pre-eminence of the family."
When he appealed to moral absolutes, he cited the example of Martin Luther King. "As a young man," he said, "with most of my life ahead of me, I decided early to give my life to eternal and absolute. Not to these little gods that are here today and gone tomorrow. But to God who is the same yesterday, today and forever."
His comportment disappointed New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who laments that he didn't make same sex marriage a wedge issue or "fan the flames of hellfire." To the chagrin of many liberals who preferred to run against a hot-headed self-righteous, sermonizing candidate, Romney cannot be stereotyped as out of touch with mainstream secular society.
Instead when it comes to a "wedge" issue, 67 percent of Americans thought that the president announced his support for gay marriage "mostly for political reasons," a cynical rather than principled position, according of those surveyed by The New York Times and CBS News.
While critics of Mitt Romney have enjoyed making fun of him as stiff and humorless, his speech at Liberty University showed an ability to talk seriously, with humility turning his business expertise into a personal parable for service.
When he was first asked to rescue the 2002 Olympics, he was busy and says he dismissed the idea because his lack of athletic prowess failed to make it sound like a logical step. His sons went further and said there was no way they could imagine their father's photo on the front page of the sports section. But he succeeded, and it became one of his most rewarding experiences.
"Opportunities for you to serve in meaningful ways may come at inconvenient times, but that will make them all the more precious," he told the graduates. He broadened Jack Kennedy's exhortation of what you can do for your country. "It is not a matter of what we are asking of life," he said, quoting Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, "but rather what life is asking of us."
In the tradition of our Founding Fathers, Mitt Romney understands that religious freedom opens a door that is closed to many around the world. "But whether we walk through that door, and what we do with our lives after we do, is up to us."