As an atheist and a father of three young children, the speech Mitt Romney delivered at the George H. W. Bush presidential library today shocked me to my core.
If this is the drift of this country, towards a politics that explicitly excludes my standing as a worthy citizen because I do not believe in one of the major monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism or Islam, then I seriously do not know what I will do to sustain for myself, and instill in my children, the strong sense of belonging that I currently feel as a citizen.
I cherish my country; I cherish our history, our laws and our principles, including the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing freedom of speech and the separation of church and state. As a non-believer who believes that it is this life which matters, my sense of morality is inextricably tied to my sense of belonging as a citizen.
Indeed, this sense of belonging runs deep. I consider myself to be unavoidably emeshed in the concerns of my fellow-citizens (as well as, more broadly, the concerns of all of the people on this planet). That is my challenge and my inspiration as I try to live my life well, and guide my children to do the same.
In the speech he gave today, Romney threatened to take part of my core identity away from me.
This is a direct quotation from his speech:
"Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone."
Although he addressed the speech to all Americans, he was not talking to me when he gave this speech. Romney made it perfectly clear that as President he would represent non-believers like me with reluctance at best. We do not fit into his idea of Americans; we are an after-thought.
If the two political parties in this country are headed towards the conclusion that, as an atheist, I am not a true American, then my family and I will, in effect, be sent into political exile. For me (as for the ancient Athenians, who also valued political partipation as a part of the core of a person's identity), exile robs life of its meaning.
Romney, unwittingly or not, for reasons of political expediency or not, threatened me with political -- and therefore, for a non-believer, spiritual -- exile in his speech today.
My first reaction, upon reading the words of the speech, was to feel my heart beating faster, as if I was facing a threat to the safety of my family. It's strange how our bodys' survival instincts, buried deep in our brains, warn us before we even have time to reflect on why.
My second reaction is to redouble my commitment to working for a future where, some day, Romney's view on the central place of religion in American life is considered a relic of a time when a great country, founded on the basis of equal consideration for all people, was held in thrall to a destructive, exclusionary myth called "faith."