Mitt’s Mormon Moment

Mitt Romney speaks during a debate in New Hampshire
(CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters)
When he was running for president in 2007, Gov. Mitt Romney recognized that he would need Evangelical support were he to win the nomination. Then, like now, Evangelicals were suspicious of Romney for two reasons: his conservative credentials seemed less than genuine, and his Mormon faith is too far outside the mainstream.

Though there was only so much he could do to try to assuage Republican primary voters that he was indeed one of them, Romney thought he could make headway on the religious front by giving a Kennedy-esque speech about the role of religion in politics, tackling his Mormon faith head-on and appealing to the higher sensibilities of the American people.

So at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Romney sought to “address a topic which I believe is fundamental to America’s greatness: our religious liberty.” He said:

There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.

He said that the American president should serve only “the common cause of the people of the United States,” and assured voters that should he win the nomination (he lost it to Sen. John McCain), that he would never take commands from leaders of his or any other church.

So did it work? Not exactly.

In 2008 Romney:

captured 20 percent or less of the evangelical vote in five Southern contests before he quit the race on February 7; he won just 11 percent of their votes in the pivotal South Carolina primary. Outside of the South, Romney consistently ran somewhat more strongly among evangelicals, but in only six states (including his home territories of Michigan and Massachusetts) did he carry as much as 30 percent of their support. He fell far short of that in the Iowa caucus.

It appears Romney has wrapped up the nomination in 2012, but his Evangelical problem continued to haunt him and draw out the primary season much longer than many expected. Sen. Rick Santorum, a rigidly right-wing Catholic, spoke to Evangelical voters using their own vocabulary and he was able to consolidate their vote toward the end of the primary season, giving hope to those in the Republican Party who yearned for an anybody-but-Romney victory.

Evangelicals are slowly embracing Romney the Inevitable, but some leaders simply see him as the lesser of two evils in a general election with President Barack Obama. One Evangelical preacher who does not hide his disdain for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints said he supports Romney, but with one important caveat:

The Southern Baptist pastor who last October called Mormonism a cult and said Mitt Romney is not a Christian is now endorsing the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

The pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, tells The Associated Press that he still doesn’t believe Mormons are Christians.

But Jeffress says voters will have to choose between a Christian like President Barack Obama and a Mormon like Romney. He says the difference is that Obama embraces non-biblical principles while Romney embraces biblical principles like the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage.

Given that choice, Jeffress says he believes Christians should support Romney in November “in spite of his Mormon faith.”

John F. Kennedy’s election to the presidency, in spite of his Roman Catholic faith, during a much less religiously tolerant time in American history did not dispel religious bigotry, but it did show that the American people were at least willing to put aside religious biases to vote for a candidate they believed would be a strong leader. At the time, many Protestant voters viewed Catholicism as foreign, cultish, depraved, and something other than Christian. Today, many look askew at the Mormon faith (though perhaps not as foreign, as it remains perhaps the unique truly American Christian denomination, which teaches Jesus Christ actually stepped foot in the American heartland).

The strong Evangelical support for Catholic Santorum may demonstrate that Catholicism now enjoys a place in America’s mainstream religious landscape. Romney’s nomination alone will not end the bigotry facing Mormons in the public square (just as Catholic Al Smith’s Democratic nod in 1928 didn’t end anti-Catholic sentiment then either). But if Romney wins in November, perhaps a Mormon presidency will begin to lessen religious bigotry that continues to stain our civil discourse. It is important to understand how presidential candidates arrive at their viewpoints, and if religion plays an important role in that process the American public should be aware of it. Religion often offers important lessons, insight, and wisdom, and its contribution to political and civic life is immense. The specific theologies of individual churches are less important than the broad moral tenets held across the wide spectrum of religious faith. Mormonism, like other Christian denominations, has its share of questionable teaching and history, but its general message, the message that presumably informs Romney’s views, is not one to fear.

Many Republicans believe Romney is a solid choice for president, and many believe that there are numerous reasons not to vote for Mitt Romney. His religious belief is not one of them.