Skinner: Does Romney’s evangelical dilemma matter?

The lack of enthusiasm evangelicals displayed for Mitt Romney in the GOP Primary raised concerns they may refuse to support the nominee whole-heartedly in the general election.

In 2008, during Romney’s first presidential run, anti-Mormonism contributed to his loss.

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SKINNER

A month prior to the Republican Iowa Caucus, Romney held a sizeable lead in the polls, when a strong anti-Mormon message promoted by a couple of local radio stations began criticizing him for being a Mormon, suggesting his religion rendered him “unfit” for the job. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, seeing opportunity, took advantage of the anti-Mormon sentiment. When asked what he thought about Romney’s religion, he slyly replied:

“Don’t Mormons believe Jesus and the Devil are brothers?”

He was capitalizing on a main theological difference between Mormons and evangelicals. Huckabee won the Iowa Caucus by nine points.

In 2012, the argument has been made that anti-Mormonism has been less pronounced and dampened to the point where it has not been a factor. This view is misleading.

Romney failed to appeal to evangelicals in this year’s presidential run even though he won the nomination. Those states with evangelical voting populations greater than 50 per cent all voted for a candidate other than Romney, suggesting he would be in real trouble if every state shared this demographic. Fortunately for him, most states do not. Romney succeeded in winning the primary by not talking about his faith and by campaigning more rigorously in areas with smaller evangelical populations. This won him the larger urban centres but also meant losing in the South and Iowa.

At the 2011 Values Voters Summit, pastor Robert Jeffress explained why he and other evangelicals are unwilling to vote for a Mormon Presidential candidate, even if he is well-qualified:

“The Mormon Church is a cult and definitely not Christian.”

This sparked a national conversation over whether Mormons are Christians and whether Jeffress’ views were bigoted. In another instance, pastor Warren Smith, explained his reason for opposing Mitt Romney in an op-ed piece:

“A vote for Romney is a vote for the Mormon Church.”

He viewed voting for Romney as unethical; suggesting he would use the presidential bully pulpit to make converts to the Mormon Church – an institution which Smith considers a purveyor of lies.

While evangelicals may disagree with the theological tenets of Mormonism, it is unreasonable to call the faith a cult. By accepted sociological and psychological definitions the Mormon Church fails to qualify as such. Plus, the Mormon Church has become too mainstream to give the notion serious credence.

In the United States, there are as many Mormons as there are Jews, and Mormons occupy key positions of authority in academics, politics, the military, sports and popular culture. In 2011, the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon (although unaffiliated with the faith) won best musical. The Mormon lifestyle, which prohibits drinking alcohol, doing drugs, smoking or even drinking tea/coffee, is suggestive of a religion more likely to conform to normative behaviour than to engage in extremism.

Although Romney’s religion was a problem for evangelicals in the primary, it is less of a problem in the General Election. This has little to do with what Romney has done and more to do with views expressed by President Barack Obama concerning same-sex unions.

In May, Obama, who until then remained neutral on the topic, endorsed gay marriage. This erased any voter apathy evangelicals may have had toward Romney where theological differences have taken a secondary position in favour of working together to preserve traditional marriage. This has helped Romney to raise more money than Obama.

Except for the month of August, where Obama raised slightly more ($114 million to $111.6 million), Romney has tallied more money three months in a row and by a significant difference ($78 million total). This is an impressive feat considering the fundraising display Obama put on in 2008; he raised $750 million mostly by small donations ($250 or less).

As a Mormon, Romney does not fit the usual faith criteria of a Republican nominee. But this problem is not just a Republican one.

Historically, this has been a problem shared by both major parties.

Of all U.S. presidents, John F. Kennedy (Catholic) was the only non-Protestant. Romney is only the third non-Protestant nominee, the other one was Al Smith in 1928 (Catholic).

The good news for Romney in that he and Kennedy share some commonalities when it comes to religious bias. In 1960, 25 per cent of voters said they would not vote for a Catholic nominee even if he were well qualified. In 2011, 22 per cent of voters said the same thing about Romney. By winning the presidency in 1960, Kennedy showed that negative bias toward one’s religion can be overcome, and within the GOP, it seems evangelicals are in a forgiving mood as they have strongly supported the Romney campaign so far.

Jacob Skinner is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science, specializing in Local Government. He completed the MA program in American Cultural Studies at Western, researching the effects of Mormonism on the electability of Mitt Romney.