Beliefs Politics

Analysis: The myth of Mitt Romney’s evangelical problem

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(RNS) Mitt Romney has an evangelical problem. Or so we’ve been told by everyone from The New Yorker to The Huffington Post to The Daily Beast. The national media have perpetuated this narrative throughout the election season, and political pundits aplenty have assumed its reliability in their columns and commentary.

Mitt Romney speaks to crowd in Nashua, NH during a rally for Romney/Ryan 2012.

Mitt Romney speaks to crowd in Nashua, NH during a rally for Romney/Ryan 2012.

But there’s one glaring problem with the storyline: It’s not true.

“Evangelicals say they want a presidential candidate who shares their religious beliefs and they still hold that Romney’s religion is different from their own,” says Robert Jones, CEO of the Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute. “And yet as early as May 2012, shortly after it became clear that Romney was the presumptive nominee, Romney held a 45-point lead over Obama” among evangelicals.

We’ve been told that evangelicals were so skeptical of Romney’s Mormon faith they might not be able to pull the lever for him in the voting booth. But according to Jones’ research, as more white evangelical voters have realized that he is Mormon, his favorability among them has actually risen.

The rift seems to be not among evangelical voters but among some old guard evangelical leaders. Who can forget Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress’ comments that Romney was a part of a “theological cult” at the 2011 Values Voter Summit? And then there was the January summit of more than 150 high-powered evangelical leaders in Texas to determine which candidate should receive their collective blessing.

They endorsed Rick Santorum on the third ballot, but in the South Carolina primaries a week later, Newt Gingrich and Romney took two-thirds of the state’s evangelical votes. In many of the primaries that followed, evangelicals continued to vote for Romney in significant numbers until he became the presumptive nominee. Contrary to the popular media narrative, polls conducted during both the 2008 and 2012 elections showed only a minority of evangelicals said they would not vote for a Mormon.

Nonetheless, the Romney campaign has been concerned about whether the former Massachusetts governor can capture the hearts and minds of American evangelicals. They know he can’t win without them because they are a big part of the Republican base. Actually, they’re almost all of it.

In order to capture these critical voters, Romney enlisted evangelical public relations guru Mark DeMoss to be a senior adviser to the campaign. He’s been called “Romney’s evangelical ambassador” and was tasked with communicating the candidate’s message to conservative Christians. But DeMoss failed to sway evangelical leaders at that secret Texas meeting. Romney did not advance beyond the first ballot, falling far behind Gingrich, Santorum, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

“If Romney wins the nomination, his support is going to be tepid, lukewarm, maybe even nonexistent,” Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association predicted after evangelical leadership endorsed Santorum.

But Fischer’s prophecy proved wrong.

Romney won the nomination, and the faithful have lined up behind him. A new Pew study shows 8 in 10 voters, evangelicals and otherwise, are either completely “comfortable” with Romney being a Mormon or simply don’t care. The same survey found that only 16 percent want to know more about Romney’s faith.

In January, Vanderbilt professor John Greer predicted that evangelicals' feelings about Mormonism would not prevent them from supporting Romney; in May, the Brookings Institution released a study indicating that Romney's Mormon faith had little effect on conservative Christians’ likelihood to support him.

“Concerns over Mitt Romney’s religion problem,” one of the authors of the Brookings study concluded, “have been overblown.”

There are at least two explanations for why Romney’s Mormonism matters so little among this powerful voting bloc.

First, evangelicals seem to care more about political ideology than orthodox theology as far as voting is concerned. Polls show that voters care most about the economy, not faith. It’s why the Tea Party — most of them being self-described evangelicals — have gravitated toward another Mormon, Glenn Beck.

In a letter delivered to the Romney campaign on Sept. 7, more than two dozen conservative Christian leaders declared, “it is time to remind ourselves that civil government is not about a particular theology but rather about public policy.” The assertion is correct, of course, but one can’t help feeling we are witnessing a departure from evangelical politics as we’ve known them. Among the signatories were evangelist Franklin Graham, the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, and other figures who attended the Texas meeting.

Second, any discomfort about Mormonism is outweighed by an even larger disdain for President Obama. Many evangelicals bemoan the last four years of his administration’s policies and they fear what he’ll do if re-elected. As religion professor John-Charles Duffy stated it, “Evangelicals may not think Romney’s a Christian, but at least he’s not Obama.”

Conservative Christians were always going to support the Republican candidate no matter who it was. As it turns out, Mitt Romney never had a serious evangelical problem. The question has always been: Does Barack Obama have a Mitt Romney problem?

(Jonathan Merritt (@jonathanmerritt) is author of “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.”)


About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • I’m not surprised at the number of “Christians” who have disdain for our President. I am surprised at the number of “Christians” who will vote for someone claiming to be a Mormon – especially someone who claims to be evangelical.

  • God can use the man who has a willing heart. We need a new heart as well as a strong mind in the seat of President of the United States.

    (….read the Old Testament account of the Kings, who by the way were voted in by mere sinful people, who thought they knew what was best for them…sound familiar?)

    Praying for our Nation…

  • Not only is Mormon theologically ridiculous, the LDS has a corporate structure that would exploit the fact that a Mormon rose to become President of the world’s most powerful country in their aggressive overseas missions.

  • Far too much emphasis on religion…especially Mitt’s. There has never been any evidence that his church has exercise any dominion over any group of people. Just leave them alone. Mr. Romney knows how to fix things…I saw it at the Olympics and there was absolutely no hope for them happening when he came in. Religion is personal. Leave it alone.

  • Are Christians interested in having the country run like a corporation? Corporations are about maximizing profits for the owners. They care little about employees, the environment, or anything related to the public good. This should be our concern about Romney, not his religion.

  • This presidential election will pose a serious test to the evangelical community. Either they will be voting for a candidate whose religious affiliation is with the Mormon Church, which historically evangelicals as a group have viewed as a cultish religion or those whose natural affiliations are not with the President will reluctantly vote for the Democratic candidate because he is the authentic Christian in the race. If they vote for Romney based on ideology and morality, then by definition they are implying that these matters trump religious affiliation. If that becomes the case, they will never be able, with integrity, to base their vote on the identification of the candidate as a Christian. If that becomes the case, thence from this day forward they will accept the time honored principle of religious pluralism in the public square and reject any notion that radical faith in Christ is the litmus test in voting for a candidate. More radically put, that will imply that they would even be willing to vote for a Muslim or an atheist if that candidate is in accord with their views on morality and ideology and is of good standing character.

    Praise the Lord!

  • Doesn’t it bother anyone that the entire mission of Romney’s church is to take over the US government by force because it is “the promise land” and needs to be accomplished before the “latter days”? Romney is a high priest in his church and has gone through ceremonies where he has promised on his life to follow their mandates. You may not think it is important that he is not Christian-he believe Christ was a man born of a god and who became a god with wives and was the brother of Lucifer-but doesn’t it concern you that he has beliefs that do not even have historical proof and that he plans on being a god on another planet in another universe? And that is only a small part of the “unusual and disturbing” things he believes. I know these things because I studied with Mormon missionaries and a high priest of LDS.

  • LN –

    A lot of what’s in your post isn’t right.

    For example, we Mormons do *not* mean to take over the nation by force.

    And “high priest” is used generically to refer to a level in the priesthood. Any given Mormon congregation that isn’t “young 20-somethings” will have about a dozen or so if it’s big enough. That you supposedly met with one and still harbor such a misconception raises warning flags.

    And if you had studied with the missionaries, you should have learned that the “brother of Lucifer” bit is overblown. Everybody is the literal spirit sibling of everyone else, with Jesus as our older brother.

  • I am grieving over our nation because the current candidates do not align with some of our important Christian values. It is sad to see how we have compromise God’s truth to fit our own agenda. We are more committed and devoted to a political party than God’s truth. Evangelicals have stated in the past that the Mormom faith was a cult and does not share the same beliefs as the Christian faith, but because there is no Republican candidate that has Christian background we compromise to vote and settle for Republican candidate who beliefs are contrary to Christian faith. people say that his religious background will not impact his decision although I do believe he will have an influence to bring more accreditation to the Mormon faith. We should be more concerned about bringing more people to salvation. “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” 1 Corinthians 8:9. I am Republican and have been struggling thinking about the idea of voting for a candidate who does not know Jesus and about salvation, and a democratic candidate who is for same sex marriages through prayer and reading scripture I have reached a conclusion I will not be voting because I refuse to vote for someone who will astray people from the faith and the truth. I am more worried about God’s truth. I pray that will we stand for the truth and not compromise and rely on our own logic and wait to make a decision about voting and seek God for an answer and instruction. I pray we remain in prayer for this nation and our leaders and for their salvation.