Cynicism about politics is real and widespread and justified. And despite relentless hyperventilating about Citizens United, it’s not the money that is at the heart of the problem. Our politics has become a bit terrifyingly like the biblical story of the tower of Babel. All too often, political communicators are speaking — or texting — to someone, but very rarely outside our comfort zone. Very rarely advancing conversations. Very rarely doing much more than talking in circles with one another, maybe making some fundraising cash off the most likely ardent supporters.
Mitt Romney modeled another way the other day. Speaking in Pennsylvania, he put current White House policy and attitude in some perspective: “This is very different by the way than the Democratic party of Bill Clinton, that said that the era of big government was over. That reformed welfare — you heard that story by the way — he is trying to take work out of the welfare requirement. It is changing the nature of America, changing the nature of what Democrats have fought for and Republicans have fought for.”
That’s not polarizing rhetoric. It came from someone who is asking for the votes of every American, who respects differences while advancing a forward-looking vision that has a rich history. (Review his NAACP speech for more of the same — it marked a turning point in his campaign.) It’s more instructive that most conversations on a vast majority of television political discussions programs. The two candidates running do, in fact, represent different approaches. Then-senator Barack Obama was sold as a transformational figure, and, in fact, he has delivered on some radical changes, changes that assert a mandate he doesn’t really have, that assume an agreed change of heart on historic common understandings that doesn’t exist.
This is what Mitt Romney is beginning to articulate an alternative to, communicating to the country in the way that only a presidential candidate in a general election can. Take his Catholic moment. “I feel we’re all Catholic today,” he said at a community center in Bowling Green, Ohio. “The president and his administration,” he continued, “said they are going to usurp your religious freedom by demanding that you provide products to your employees, if you’re the Catholic Church, that violates your own conscience.”
“Whether it’s a Catholic businessperson or the Catholic Church itself they’re being told what they have to do that violates their religious conscience,” he said, clarifying the fullness of the impact of the Department of Health and Human Services contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing-drug mandate. “That attack on religious freedom, I think, is a dangerous and unfortunate precedent… In our battle to preserve religious freedom and tolerance . . . in this country, it is essential for us to push back against that.”
Mitt Romney may not have the office of the president and the communications advantage that comes with it, but he has increasingly been using the megaphone that comes with being the alternative to the president in a presidential election. He has a compelling counter-narrative to advance. He can educate like no one other than the sitting president, as everything he says now has the potential to make headlines. And he’s been doing that lately. It may not all get covered on the top of the news like his tax returns are, but in our current social-media age, the old media don’t have the monopolistic stranglehold on information dissemination they used to. You read this and you pass it on on e-mail, on Facebook, Tweet a little, have a Pinterest — and there is still the old-school getting-it-in-print and passing it on at the diner or kitchen table.
For months, there has been conventional narrative insisting that there is no fight for religious freedom happening in the United States today, that there is, instead, some Catholic-bishops/John Boehner-led conspiracy to restrict access to contraception. In truth, the opposition to the mandate, and deeper concerns about the future of conscience rights in America are what so many, including Timothy Cardinal Dolan and the Speaker of the House; Senators Roy Blunt (Methodist), Kelly Ayotte, and Marco Rubio; Representatives Jeff Fortenberry and Diane Black (Lutheran) and Dan Lipinski (Democrat); and so many others — are trying to protect our constitutional understanding of religious freedom, one that has been enjoyed for 236 years, with ecumenical, bipartisan support.
That’s what Romney articulated in Ohio, a historic, bipartisan consensus that is on the verge of succumbing to a new secular understanding of religious freedom, one that is suspicious of its free exercise. Alarm over this is not an exclusively Republican, Tea Party, or Catholic, or any shade of religious position. Religious liberty is a gift, and one the United States has been a gift to the world for protecting and advancing. And it is one of the pivotal issues on the ballot in November. Romney has begun to pave the way to speaking with some of the same language and the same words on fundamentals. The road to political victory could prove to be a game-changer for a culture that has lost its ability to communicate clearly on what matters most.