The new folks here inside the Beltway -- that would be The Politico -- had a very important story the other day about a reality that will almost certainly help shape the GOP race for the White House in 2011 and 2012 (that is, if you assume that the Clintons have enough stuff on Barack Obama to force him into the VP slot and that the story plays out from there with a GOP loss). The bottom line: You know we will hear from Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee again.
I missed this story when it ran, just before Super Tuesday. The headline was edgy enough: "Utah's Mormons loathe Huckabee." You know what the hook is, don't you?
The wellspring of Huckabee hate is a now-famous Dec. 16 New York Times Magazine interview in which the former Arkansas governor, in an "innocent voice," is reported to have asked, "Don't Mormons ... believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"
To Mormons, Huckabee's eyebrow-raising question represented not only a gross distortion of their beliefs but also a carefully calculated move by a Christian politician who surely knew better.
No, the more interesting part of the story, for me, came later. If you look ahead to more primary battles between the Southern Baptist preacher and the Mormon elder.
In the summer of 1998, then-Arkansas Gov. Huckabee, along with fellow national church leaders, attended the National Southern Baptist Convention in Salt Lake City. At the time, the decision to hold the event in the shadow of the Mormon Tabernacle was viewed by many Mormons as an insulting stab directed at the very heart of the LDS church.
Worse, according to an account published in the Salt Lake Tribune during the convention, some 2,000 "messengers" of the Southern Baptist Convention went door to door in Utah and proselytized, "armed with questionnaires and their personal belief in Jesus Christ as their savior." ...
The Baptists' choice of Salt Lake City was a deliberate one, said James Guth, a leading authority on the influence of religion in politics and professor at Furman University. The Baptists intended to "create a new mission field." Mormons and the Southern Baptists, he explained, are members of "competing missionary religions."
And that is precisely right. Of course, Baptists are not the only people who have been known to boldly go from door to door (nice Mitt picture here) seeking to find converts to their faith.
As a rule, Mormons believe that missionary work is a good thing and so do Southern Baptists (along with other traditional or conservative Christians who are not Universalists). I imagine that Mormon missionaries in places like Dallas and Nashville run into more than their share of Baptists and, I keep reading, they find more than their share of converts in Baptist living rooms.
So this issue is not going away, because neither of these growing churches is going to back down -- for perfectly valid theological reasons.
On top of that, Romney was trapped by his own church's multi-decade public relations campaign to raise its profile as a "Christian" option in mainstream America. He could not say anything -- no matter what the James Dobson people claimed -- that would undercut that message.
Millions of Trinitarian Christians do not believe that Mormons have a traditional view of God and the doctrine of God is rather central to the faiths of these two competing faiths. Thus, the drip-drip-drip of the Mormon advertising through the years offended just as many people as it pleased.
Now what does that have to do with politics? Romney tried to say the obvious (My beliefs are different from your beliefs, so what?) but that did not do the trick. He never embraced the conflict and made a political case for millions of traditional Christians to vote for him anyway.
Some were ready to do so. But many were not. Just ask the New York Times, or, at least, Outposts columnist Timothy Egan. You can't get any blunter than this "Mitt's Funeral" piece:
Mitt Romney is gone, having suspended his campaign in the face of delegate math that cannot work in his favor, no matter how he crunches the numbers. But before he leaves the stage, the record should show who -- or what -- did him in.
Blame Christians. By significant margins, in poll after poll, in vote after vote a solid block of evangelical Christians said they would never vote for a Mormon. Since evangelicals made up nearly half of the Republican primary vote in some states, Romney was up against a deep well of distrust of a religion that many evangelicals still label a cult.
There's more, of course.
It's tempting to call these voters anti-Mormon bigots. Polls show evangelicals are three times as likely to vote for a black candidate as a Mormon. In the late 1960s, the percentage of Americans who said they would not vote for a Jew was in the teens. By 2000, that number was down to the low single digits. A similar tolerance opened up for Catholics.
But on Mormons, the numbers never moved. About 17 percent of Americans say they have qualms about voting for a Mormon -- the same number as in 1967. Among evangelicals, it's far worse. ... According to a Pew Center poll, 36 percent of evangelicals said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who was Mormon. This is 50 percent higher than the nation as whole.
Of course, there are millions of people on the left who would refuse to vote for a Mormon candidate as well, unless, of course, that candidate was willing to write off the moral teachings of her or his church. There are also millions of progressive Christians and secularists who happily report that they would refuse to vote for an evangelical (most would probably say "fundamentalist") who sticks to her or his guns on crucial social issues. Doctrines matter.
This is where America is, right now. Romney's problem was that he could not talk openly about the issues that actually divided him from a major army of GOP and/or conservative voters. He could not be candid, openly stating that his beliefs were radically different than their beliefs, but that this should not affect his work in the public square.
Will this issue go away the next time around? Don't count on it. Romney and Huckabee will almost certainly be back and the press has no right to ask the Mormons or the Baptists to stop caring about ultimate issues that lead to evangelism and, yes, knocking on doors.