Evangelicals prefer Clinton over a Mormon?

romney in massThe "Mitt Romney cannot win the Republican nomination because he believes in weird things" chorus is singing again. The major theme this time around, as explained in this this excellent blogpost by Ross Douthat, is whether it is constitutional for voters to apply a religious test to candidates for public office. Romney's presidential run has picked up some serious steam, thanks to his universal health-care initiative in Massachusetts. National Journal considers Romney one of the big three contenders for the GOP nomination behind Sens. John McCain of Arizona and George Allen of Virginia.

Putting his super-secret sources to work, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak wrote Thursday that "Romney is well aware that an unconstitutional religious test is being applied to him."

There is nothing new to this argument, as The Washington Monthly's Amy Sullivan points out. It was Sullivan who wrote in September 2005 that Romney's Mormon beliefs will be a problem in a 2008 presidential run. Nevertheless, Novak has the super-secret sources and his article will be a watermark in Romney's presidential run:

Mitt Romney, in his last nine months as governor of Massachusetts, was in Washington Tuesday to address the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in an early stage of his 2008 presidential campaign. To a growing number of Republican activists, he looks like the party's best bet. But any conversation among Republicans about Romney invariably touches on concerns of whether his Mormon faith disqualifies him for the presidency.

The U.S. Constitution prohibits a religious test for public office, but that is precisely what is being posed now. Prominent, respectable Evangelical Christians have told me, not for quotation, that millions of their co-religionists cannot and will not vote for Romney for president solely because he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If Romney is nominated and their abstention results in the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton, that's just too bad. The evangelicals are adamant, saying there is no way Romney can win them over.

Evangelicals, whoever these strange folks are, prefer a President Clinton II to a President Romney? You have to be kidding me.

The biggest problem I had with Novak's article is the assumption that evangelical voters -- those who are orthodox in their politics -- actually have that level of influence in the Republican Party. The influence of these voters is minimal and must be separated from the millions of churchgoers who readily voted for Ronald Reagan despite his wife's use of a personal astrologer to help determine his schedule.

romney buttonAn angle that needs to be covered in these pieces of political speculation is that Mormon politicians have historically been very friendly to evangelicals' ministries and issues. A Washington, D.C., pastor I spoke to last night said that the politician who is most helpful to his ministry is Mormon.

A note to political writers: Romney's religious beliefs matter. They matter because Romney himself knows they matter. Will conservative evangelical voters and their leaders really not vote for Romney in a general election because he is Mormon? Sounds like a good story for local papers to do during the GOP primary.

Adam Reilly over at Slate wrote a nice piece of political commentary a day before Novak's piece ran that provides the Romney campaign with some nice suggestions for overcoming what has now become the "Mormon problem."

In recent months, for example, he's done a nice job convincing pundits and the public that religious voters care more about core values than theological minutiae. During a February trip to South Carolina, a key primary state, Romney was asked how his faith would go over with Southern evangelicals. "Most people in South Carolina want a person of faith as their leader," he replied. "But they don't care what brand of faith that is ... I believe Jesus Christ is my savior. I believe in God. I'm a person of faith and I believe that's the type of person Americans want." Romney's contention that the "brand of faith" doesn't matter is debatable -- but if he keeps saying it, and enough people take up the mantra on his behalf, some skeptics might change their minds. Romney's hard sell is already working with the press: In a recent column on Romney's ’08 prospects, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter asserted that "[M]ost just want a believer, regardless of faith" -- a line that could have been penned by the governor himself. ...

RomneyStandardWhat's more, there's a desperate quality to Romney's eagerness for approval from non-Mormon religious notables. In March, Romney traveled to Rome for Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley's elevation to cardinal. It was a nice photo-op for the governor, who's sure to tout this trip -- and his cooperation with O'Malley in fights against gay marriage and stem-cell research in Massachusetts -- while courting the Catholic vote nationwide. But Romney overreacted, embarrassing himself with breathless commentary about what a big deal his Vatican junket was. "This is extraordinary, and particularly for someone of my faith," Romney gushed at a St. Patrick's Day breakfast in New Hampshire prior to his trip. "I don't know that there's ever been a Mormon guy that's been to the Vatican for a [M]ass held by the Pope, so it's a personal honor." Thanks for the reminder that Mormons are religious pariahs, governor. Worse, a Romney spokesperson told the Boston Globe that A) Romney and O'Malley were friends; and B) the archbishop had invited the governor to make the trip. Romney just looked foolish when O'Malley told the Globe he hadn't invited Romney and didn't really know him all that well. (An O'Malley spokesman eventually explained that Romney had received an invitation "similar to that extended to the general public.")

In between Romney's lectures that HBO's Big Love does not represent Mormonism, political reporters are going to have to dig into the true beliefs of this faith. As we have written at GetReligion, those beliefs are hardly monolithic.

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