'Freedom requires religion'? Since when?

Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney's recent speech explaining his religious beliefs aimed to dispel misconceptions about his Mormon faith. But in the process, Romney revealed that he's unfit for the nation's highest office.

Romney's Latter-day Saints affiliation is irrelevant. But his comments about the role of religion in civic affairs offer crucial clues to his understanding of American political principles.

My reading of Romney's speech is fairly simple: He pandered to the Christian right to accept him as one of their own. Romney believes he needs the support of the GOP's ample evangelical wing in order to get the party nomination, and he may be right.

But Romney's statements on this issue should alarm anyone who believes in the founding tenets of the United States. Romney argued that there is a strong bond between theology and American governance. He contended this bond dates to the founding of the country and that without religious faith, America could not exist.

"Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom," he said. "Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone."

Oh? Since when?

From the beginning, the United States has prided itself on the separation of church and state, believing it to be a vital element of a successful republic. This separation was based on the Founders' knowledge of world history, which is rife with brutal, failed regimes under which church and state were intertwined.

Why would freedom "require" religion? Logic and experience suggest that freedom thrives in the absence of religion, that religion inherently inhibits freedom.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were the most forceful and eloquent Founders on the subject of church-state separation. Interestingly, Romney mentioned neither of them in his speech, opting to quote John Adams instead. The second president had his merits, but he suffered from a fatal blind spot when it came to the First Amendment.

Remember that Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, basically eliminating free speech from the young nation. (Three of the four acts expired or were repealed after Jefferson became president, and he pardoned the jailed violators to boot.)

Romney's most provocative assertion directly addressed the church-state question. "In recent years," he said, "the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgement of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America -- the religion of secularism. They are wrong."

Romney's statement is a direct contradiction to Jefferson, who wrote in 1802: "Religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God."

Furthermore, Romney's reference to "the religion of secularism" is a derogatory attack on tens of millions of Americans who have no religious belief at all and bristle when religious people try to impose their beliefs on others. He seems to be saying that while freedom of religion is essential, freedom from religion is beyond the pale.

Secularism, in fact, is one of the most important elements of the American system, a dedication to reason and tolerance unprecedented in human history. This may not be evident to the likes of Mitt Romney and George W. Bush, but that doesn't mean all conservative politicians fail to see this vital point. One of the most beloved conservatives of our time, the late Sen. Barry Goldwater, had this to say in 1981:

"The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both.

"I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe A, B, C or D. Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?

"And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism."

Romney's speech was widely compared with the one John F. Kennedy gave to explain his Catholic faith when he ran for president in 1960. But Kennedy included a key sentiment absent from Romney's speech. Kennedy declared simply, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

Whether you are a Republican, Democrat or independent voter, I implore you to seek out a candidate with a genuine understanding of American history and respect for the nation's founding principles. Church-state separation is a fairly easy one to expect a presidential candidate to appreciate, and Romney, for one, has flunked the test.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and, coming in February, "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.