John J. Miller
December 18, 2006
Earlier this year, Mitt Romney, the undeclared GOP presidential candidate, came to the attention of Mark DeMoss, a public-relations specialist in Atlanta. “I had not met him, but his stand on traditional marriage as governor of Massachusetts convinced me that he’s a real leader,” says DeMoss. “Evangelical voters can put their faith in him.”
DeMoss ought to know. His PR firm, the DeMoss Group, represents some of the most prominent Christian organizations in the country: the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Campus Crusade for Christ International, and T. D. Jakes Ministries. In September, DeMoss flew to Boston for a private meeting with Romney. He wasn’t looking for a new client — at least not a paying one. “I told him that it was wrong to think that evangelical voters would dismiss him out of hand just because he’s a Mormon,” says DeMoss. “I offered to help for free.”
It was an offer that Romney could not refuse. As the field of 2008 presidential candidates comes into sharper focus, the matter of Romney’s faith is becoming one of the nation’s most pressing political questions: Will American voters accept the notion of a Mormon president? Or more precisely, will evangelical voters, who hold so much sway in Republican primaries, accept Romney, whose religion is regarded by many of them as a weird cult?
The problem is that nobody knows the answer with any certainty. Most pundits offer only shrugs. Those who hazard guesses tend to draw from a well of anecdotes and a couple of polls; liberals among them are also influenced by the suspicion that GOP primary voters are a bunch of bigots who would love to find another group to exclude. The Romney camp would like to ease anxieties as quickly as possible — and so it has kick-started an aggressive effort to court Christian conservatives. The success of this strategy may determine whether Romney becomes a minor footnote in the history of presidential politics, or something more.
When DeMoss returned to Atlanta after his first meeting with Romney, he knew what he needed to do next: arrange another get-together, but this time with a group of influential Christian leaders. He assembled a list of top evangelicals and issued invitations. “I sent them by FedEx because the time frame was so short,” says DeMoss. About a dozen accepted and traveled at their own expense to Boston, gathering at Romney’s home in Belmont, Mass., on October 26. The attendees included Gary Bauer, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, and the pastors from several evangelical megachurches, such as Paula White of Without Walls International Church, based in Tampa. “We sat in a circle, eating cold cuts from trays in our laps and talking for almost three hours,” says one of the participants. “I think every one of us came away impressed.”
Richard Land certainly did. “Our discussion was open and frank,” says Land, who heads the policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Evangelicals know that they’re not electing a theologian-in-chief, but a commander-in-chief. If they agree with Romney on social issues, his Mormonism won’t be a hindrance, especially if he’s the only viable social conservative in the mix.” Frank Page, the president of the Southern Baptists and the pastor of a large church in Taylors, S.C., did not attend the Belmont meeting but echoes Land’s sentiments: “I have a deep disagreement with Romney’s theology, but I won’t rule him out. Among the presidential candidates who have surfaced, he’s the closest to the Southern Baptists in his social and moral beliefs.”
Most of the discussion at Romney’s home focused on policy issues, such as the governor’s history of fighting for traditional marriage and against destructive embryonic-stem-cell research. The question of his faith did come up, however, because Romney himself raised it. He described it in terms similar to those he used during an interview that aired in November on The 700 Club, the news program hosted by Pat Robertson on the Christian Broadcasting Network. Here’s what Romney said on Robertson’s program: “I think Americans want people of faith to lead their country. Generally they don’t care so much about the particular brand of faith if the people that they’re looking at have the same values they have. And people of my faith have the values of other great religions that are represented here in this country.”
If anything, Mormons are more conservative than people of other faiths. In 2004, no state gave a greater share of its popular vote to President Bush than Utah, where about three-quarters of the electorate is Mormon. They are quintessential values voters whose views on social matters are virtually indistinguishable from those of evangelicals.
On spiritual matters, of course, there are deep differences. Mormons obviously count themselves as Christians, but most evangelicals disagree. They’re appalled at the concept of extra-Biblical revelation, which is what the Book of Mormon claims to contain. Mormons also hold unorthodox views on human nature and the divine Trinity. “If you can’t sign on to the Nicene Creed — Catholics and Protestants do, but Mormons don’t — then you’re outside the boundaries of traditional Christianity,” says Joseph Loconte, an evangelical who is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Then there’s that awkward business about polygamy. Although the Mormon Church essentially banned it a century ago, it’s the single trait that many Americans associate with Mormonism. When Romney speaks to new audiences, he tries to put them at ease with a joke: “I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman . . . and a woman . . . and a woman . . .” It may help that several of his potential GOP competitors, such as Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, have divorced and remarried; Romney has been married to the same woman — his first and only wife — since 1969.
“There’s no question that there are strong feelings about Mormonism,” says Jerry Falwell, the founder of Moral Majority. “But we’re not electing a Sunday-school teacher, we’re electing a president. I do not believe his church affiliation will hinder his being a viable candidate among evangelicals.” Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, who also met Romney in October, agrees: “I don’t think Mormonism will play as an issue. It isn’t a disqualifier. We’re past that. I’m practical, and I’m impressed with him on the things that really matter.”
Richard Lee of First Redeemer Church, near Atlanta, felt a connection to Romney in Belmont as well: “Before meeting him, I didn’t know the fortitude of his moral beliefs, and I found a kindred spirit on the sanctity of human life and traditional marriage.” Franklin Graham, the son of Billy, told Romney that he “didn’t have a problem” with the governor’s Mormonism and proceeded to ask several questions about international issues. “I enjoyed the opportunity to attend a meeting with Mitt Romney and his wife Ann in their home, and I appreciate his strong stand on issues which I consider to be important,” said Graham in a statement to NR. “I believe every voter who claims to follow Jesus Christ ought to judge a candidate on where he or she stands on issues that are important to people of faith.”
THE EVANGELICAL PRIMARY
If Romney isn’t racking up formal endorsements from prominent evangelicals, it’s partly because several of these figures say that they won’t make public endorsements of anybody. Yet many evangelicals are willing to say that Romney’s Mormonism isn’t a deal-breaker. “He’s a very attractive and viable candidate,” says Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship. “As an evangelical, I’m not troubled that he’s a Mormon. I would have theological concerns about his soul, but not about his competence. I’m looking for someone who shares my values and is capable of governing.”
A web-based group called Evangelicals for Mitt tries to reinforce this point. “I’m convinced that evangelicals are going to realize that he’s the best man for the job,” says David French, who runs the site with his wife and several colleagues. “We don’t elect a president to tell us about the nature of Jesus, but to advance certain political and moral issues.” French has visited South Carolina, an early-primary state, to meet privately with church leaders. He also says that his group receives no financial support from Romney’s political-action committee or from Mormons: “I know all the donors and they’re evangelicals.”
In interviews about Romney, Colson and several other evangelicals cited Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, who is credited with saying that he would rather be “ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian.” Marvin Olasky, the editor of World magazine, adds that a “wise Mormon” is an acceptable option. “I know nothing about Romney that would preclude me from voting for him,” he says. “If he faces Hillary Clinton, I’ll vote for him in a Utah minute.”
The good news for Romney is that evangelicals have a long history of rejecting their coreligionists. “I’m used to voting against Southern Baptists,” says a leader in that flock. “Carter, Clinton, Gore — I voted against them all.” Even within the politics of Republican primaries, evangelicals seem more concerned about finding conservatives who can win general elections than politicians who are theologically pure. The stumbling presidential candidacies of Bauer and Robertson suggest as much. “People will be practical, and they will make judgments based on the alternatives,” says Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic intellectual who is widely respected by Protestants. “From what I’ve seen of Romney, I’m very favorably impressed — he’s done well within the eccentric politics of Massachusetts. For me, his Mormonism is not a positive factor, but I could support him.”
Yet it would be wrong to suggest that Romney is on the verge of wrapping up the evangelical vote. “I don’t believe that conservative Christians will vote for a Mormon, but that remains to be seen, I guess,” said James Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family and possibly the most influential evangelical in the country, on Laura Ingraham’s radio program in October. Dobson was not available for an interview with NR. His top policy adviser, Tom Minnery, refused to say whether Romney’s faith would preclude Dobson or himself from supporting the governor’s presidential bid: “I’m not going to answer that now.”
AN UPHILL FIGHT
In a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll conducted in June, many people were willing to answer the question — and not in a way favorable to Romney. The survey asked: “Just thinking about a candidate’s religion, do you think you could vote for a Mormon candidate for president, or not?” Thirty-seven percent said no, compared with 10 percent for a Catholic, 15 percent for a Jew, 21 percent for an evangelical, and 54 percent for a Muslim. Two distinct groups demonstrated a special reluctance to support a Mormon: those who attend church frequently and Democrats. Among adults who go to church weekly, 41 percent said that they couldn’t vote for a Mormon. Among those who go more than once a week — a group that includes many evangelicals — 50 percent said that they couldn’t. Forty-two percent of Democrats said that they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon, compared with about one-third of both Republicans and independents.
These figures may be inflated because the poll asked respondents to focus narrowly on religion. (A 1999 Gallup survey suggested that a much smaller portion of Americans — 17 percent — would refuse to vote for a well-qualified candidate of their own party who was also a Mormon.) Romney obviously hopes that a growing number of Americans accept the view of Cal Thomas, a popular journalist and an evangelical. “If an ambulance hits me, I care less where or how the driver worships than I do about his sense of direction to the nearest hospital,” he wrote in July, responding to the L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll. “It troubles me not that a Mormon might be president. It does trouble me a great deal that so many people would think a person’s faith . . . should be the only reason to deny someone the presidency.”
Many evangelical voters may ultimately decide that they don’t have anywhere else to go but Romney. McCain and Giuliani have their own problems with evangelicals — McCain because he is perceived by many as contemptuous, and Giuliani because he has a history of espousing Manhattan-style social liberalism. Two of Romney’s biggest threats may come from Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, potential candidates who have little chance of winning the GOP nomination but who have loyal followings among evangelical activists. Either could peel votes away from Romney.
Romney has another potential weakness. “He talks about core values that other Republicans won’t touch, which is great, but I’m troubled by his changing views on abortion,” says Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, which has involved Romney in a couple of its events this fall. When Romney lost a race for the Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994, he was a pro-choice candidate; when he won election as governor in 2002, he promised not to meddle with the state’s abortion laws. Today, he insists that he’s pro-life, but not everybody’s buying it. “I don’t think evangelicals should have a particular concern because of Mormonism,” says Michael Farris, a home-school activist and the founder of Patrick Henry College. “But where has he been on pro-family issues over the years? I want to see candidates with arrows in their backs. I’m not looking for an Olympic-year conservative.” Other evangelicals believe in the power of conversion. “As governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed a liberal abortion law and later regretted it,” says Richard Land. “If he can change, then so can Romney. I do accept that Romney has changed.”
The question of Romney’s Mormonism won’t ever disappear entirely, and Romney’s camp may choose to address it in a speech or a high-profile TV interview — a tactic that would update John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, when the candidate who became America’s first Catholic president said, “I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.”
The Mormon issue is likely to surface in ugly ways. Four years ago, former Republican congressman Matt Salmon found himself in a tight race for governor of Arizona. During the campaign’s final days, an independent candidate ran ads claiming that Salmon, a Mormon, would not crack down on polygamist fringe groups. Salmon lost the election by a hair. Romney experienced similar demagoguery during his 1994 Senate race, when Sen. Kennedy suggested that Mormonism was fundamentally racist because blacks were excluded from its priesthood until 1978. The ploy backfired, but it may be tried again: At a South Carolina Republican executive meeting in September, Cyndi Mosteller, the McCain-supporting GOP chairwoman of Charleston County, bombarded Romney with questions about blacks and polygamy.
This spring, Regnery will publish A Mormon in the White House?, a book by radio host Hugh Hewitt, who is popular among evangelicals. “I can vote for any Republican, including Romney, who is committed to victory in the war and sound judges,” he says. Hewitt won’t reveal how he answers the question posed in the title, except to say, “It’s going to take a whole book to figure it out.” A book — and a couple of years.