A month ago, I started a column in which I attempted to puzzle out why the Republican Party was preparing to nominate a man who, apparently, lacks the ability to connect with ordinary Americans. For at that time, it seemed, Mitt Romney’s nomination was all but assured.
But I hesitated. It seemed to me impossible that the Republican electorate - even in this most peculiar of years - would nominate the too- garrulous Newt Gingrich, much less someone as out of touch with the American mainstream as Rick Santorum.
Still, I hesitated. And I’m glad I did.
Understand, I regard a Santorum presidency as unthinkable. But I’m happy I didn’t set myself up as a political prophet − which I’m clearly not.
If I possessed the gift of prophecy, I wouldn’t be writing this column. I’d be spending a few hours each day buying and selling stocks, online, from my villa in the south of France. And the rest of the day puttering in my vineyard, writing “my novel,” and enjoying the camaraderie of my neighbors at some café.
No, I’m no prophet. And now, it seems, there might, indeed, be a President Santorum. The conservative Christian activist from Pennsylvania has something Mitt Romney appears to lack: Convictions. Or, rather, the advantage of having convictions which would not arouse a chorus of catcalls and abuse from a typical Republican town meeting.
Because Mr. Romney, for all his claims of “severe conservatism,” is ultimately a sensible, pragmatic, middle-of-the-road fellow who would likely govern from the non-ideological center. Which, of course, is where most Americans would have their President govern.
But unless Mr. Romney can discover an effective way of “faking sincerity” - and saying with conviction those things he apparently does not believe – we may face a choice between President Obama and Mr. Santorum - an intelligent, articulate, and attractive man who believes that this country can and should be ruled by faith.
Doubtless, many Americans would find that an attractive prospect. In an era when most of the developed world seems to be getting along rather well without religion, the United States persists - almost alone -in the power, wealth and influence it grants to the purveyors of faith.
I sometimes sense that the tide is turning - that this latest “great awakening” is finally beginning to lose its momentum. I confess that I hope so.
But, as noted, I’m no prophet.
What I am certain of is this: If this country persists in choosing its leaders, and its policies, in a dialogue from which all secular voices have been excluded, we run grave risks. Spokesman for the religious right are fond of telling us that a nation which does not heed the commandments of God is on a path to destruction.
But history offers another lesson. The greatest advances in human history - the rise of Athenian democracy; the establishment of Rome’s magnificent empire; the brilliant achievements of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, including the founding of this great republic; the stunning breakthroughs of Darwin, Freud, Einstein and the economists, artists, and educators of a century ago - all were achieved in spite of, and over the objections of, organized religion.
Indeed, the brilliant Gibbon - whose Decline and Fall remains my personal Everest - makes the case in magisterial prose: The Roman Empire, probably the greatest achievement of humankind before men landed on the Moon, was undermined and destroyed by its too-fervent embrace of the Christian faith and the enormous power it surrendered to the hierarchy of the Church.
To be sure, religion - as a private matter - can be a very good thing. In my experience, most of the really good people I have known have been personally devout. Without doubt, strong congregations are often the very lifeblood of strong communities.
But once religion reaches beyond the bounds of the private, the personal, and the congregational, things seem to go wrong. Those who seek to impose their private values on large communities - or on nations - almost inevitably yield to the temptations of power and lose their way. Once fallible individuals take it upon themselves to speak for the divine - in the public forum - they are almost certainly deluded.
This country was founded by men and women, most of whom were privately skeptical of all religious creeds. They did not doubt the value of religion in forming strong communities and raising up good citizens, but they were determined to keep organized religion and politics as separate as possible.
The appearance of Mr. Santorum as a credible candidate seems to me to make clear that we have too long neglected the necessity of maintaining this nation as a secular republic.
What America needs is a generation of leaders with the courage to reassert the profound secularism of our Founders - men and women of the Enlightenment who embraced philosophy, science, law and human reason as the foundations of a great and good nation.