My friend Ken Carroll has wept and gnashed his teeth about Yankees’ perception of southern evangelicals with respect to Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. My first suggestion to Ken is that he re-calibrate his sensitivity meter and reset it to “we don’t care how you do it up north.” I would also suggest that voters’ questions about electing a Mormon as President are neither uniquely Southern nor uniquely evangelical in nature. The common thread in those who support another candidate is just as likely to be political conservatism, specifically small government or fiscal conservatism.
Whether Mormons are Christian depends on who you ask
Mormons state that they are Christians, but some mainline and evangelical believers do not agree.
A 2007 Pew survey found that 31% of respondents do not believe Mormons are Christians and 25% would be less likely to vote for a Mormon. 62% said that Mormonism is significantly different then their religion.
This year, Lifeway Research found that 67% of evangelical preachers and 48 percent of mainline preachers strongly disagree with the statement that Mormons are Christians.
In 2000, my church, the United Methodist Church, said that Mormonism “does not fit within the bounds of the historic, apostolic tradition of the Christian faith.” The Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted a similar statement in 1995 and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has stated that “the Mormon understanding of the Word of God is not the same as the Christian understanding” and does not recognize Mormon baptism as Christian baptism.
A November 2011 survey by Pew found that 53% of white evangelicals believe that Mormons are not Christians as they understand the term, while only 21% of mainline Protestants agree with that statement.
So the opinion that Mormonism is not Christianity is more widely held among evangelicals, it is not a uniquely evangelical point of view. It is subject to debate, but it appears that this opinion is neither a fringe belief nor is it confined to evangelicals.
These concerns are not uniquely Southern
A recent post at Huffington Post delves into some numbers from the CNN entrance and exit polls in Iowa and notes that Romney received support from only 14% of self-identified evangelical Christians, while giving fellow evangelicals Bachmann and Perry only 20% while Catholics Gingrich and Santorum received 46% of Evangelical support. Notably, 57% of respondents to the CNN surveys identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Christian.
While HuffPo concludes that this means that questions about Romney’s faith underlie his soft support among the hardcore.
Those low numbers among the Republican Party’s most important constituency could portend trouble for the candidate who almost everyone agrees would be the automatic shoo-in for the GOP’s nomination if not for his membership in the Mormon Church. If unable to shake evangelical apathy (or perhaps even antipathy) towards his Mormon faith, Romney will come up short again in his quest for the Republican ticket.
In another post, the same HuffPo writer states
Romney couldn’t capture the nomination four years ago, though his faith certainly was not the only factor in his defeat. But it’s already clear the questions about Mormonism won’t be any less prominent for Romney this time either.
While it is true that questions about Romney’s faith may make some evangelical and even mainline Christians hesitant to support him, I have an alternative theory.
Both issues may be irrelevant to conservatives
I will confess to harboring personal questions about supporting a Mormon for President in the Republican Primary. I recognize that at least part of my hesitation is rooted in my ignorance of the Mormon faith, but that is also reflects legitimate questions of the compatability of his faith with mine. But those questions might be overcome with more information and less ignorance.
What Romney cannot overcome in my mind, and I believe the minds of other conservatives, is my suspicion of his born-again conservatism, especially as regards fiscal issues and the proper role of government. Because of this, any issues or questions I might have about his faith are irrelevant in my vote choice.
My experience suggests that substantial overlap exists between small-government and fiscal conservatives and conservative Christians. That also reflects my own ideology. I suspect this is as accurate for Iowa Republicans as it is for Georgia GOPers. Pew surveys from November 2010 and February 2011 found that white evangelicals were substantially more likely to support Tea Party organizations than mainline Protestants and that there is substantial overlap between social conservatism and fiscal conservatism among Tea Party supporters. Among those who agree with the conservative Christian movement, 69% agreed with the Tea Party.
A recent Pew poll found significant differences between self-identified evangelicals and mainline Protestants in their willingness to support Romney in the Republican Primary. The same survey found that voters who don’t believe Mormons are Christians are also the strongest opponents of President Obama and that there is no significant difference in their support for Romney over Obama versus those who agree that Mormons are Christian.
A poll released last week by the Salt Lake Tribune highlights evangelical views that they share common ground with Mormons on social issues like abortion and gay rights and found that “76 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of white evangelicals said they would be comfortable voting for a Mormon for president, while fewer than half of Democrats (46 percent) said they would be.”
But fiscal conservatism is important to me and the disconnect between my political ideology and Mitt Romney’s record keeps me searching for an alternative candidate.
So why do the media insist that Romney’s Mormon faith is a larger issue for conservatives than it is? Because it’s an easier and more interesting post. It will generate more traffic, links and discussion than acknowledging that Romney’s lack of real conservative credentials is an impediment to his earning the Republican nomination. It also requires a less-facile understanding of conservative politics than many writers in the national media possess or are willing to acquire.
And perhaps there are those who seek to paint Republicans as intolerant while ignoring evidence that Democrats may be less tolerant of Mormonism in a political candidate than Republicans are.
Questions about Romney’s Mormon faith do appear to be correlated to support for Romney among self-identified evangelicals. But one of the principal lessons in an introductory statistics course to to avoid confusing correlation with causation. There is also significant correlation between self-identified evangelicalism and both fiscal and social conservatism. And small government and fiscal conservatives of all religious backgrounds are rightly suspicious of Mitt Romney’s self-professed conservatism given his record in office.