THE BLOG

Romney's Evangelical Problem

06/07/2011 11:09 am ET | Updated Aug 07, 2011
  • Neil J. Young Historian. Author of 'We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics'. Co-host, 'Past Present' podcast.

With the announcement earlier this month that he would again seek the Republican nomination for president in 2012, Mitt Romney launched his expected return to the presidential race. Yet even before Romney could officially declare his candidacy, questions about how his Mormon faith would affect his chances had already reemerged. On the day of his announcement, a poll released by the Pew Research Center revealed that 34 percent of white evangelical Protestants (and 25 percent of all voters) said they would be "less likely" to support a Mormon candidate, a potentially disastrous finding for anyone seeking the Republican nomination. A week before, the evangelical journalist Warren Cole Smith caused a small controversy when his article on the religion website, Patheos, called Romney's Mormon faith a "dangerous religion." Smith warned that electing a Mormon to the presidency "would be a source of pride and a shot of adrenaline for the LDS church. It would serve to normalize the false teachings of Mormonism the world over ... To elect a Mormon President is to advance the cause of the Mormon Church."

Americans tend to believe that John F. Kennedy's historic win as the first -- and only -- Catholic president in 1960 proved a candidate's religion was no longer a barrier to higher office, but the Pew poll and Smith's article show that Mormonism remains a substantial challenge for anyone in politics at the national level. In fact, the difficulties for a Mormon running for higher office may have increased since Kennedy's election because during that time American evangelicals have grown increasingly knowledgeable and critical of the Mormon faith.

Romney's own father, George Romney, the Michigan governor who ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1968, faced some evangelical opposition to his candidacy because of his religious beliefs. Writing in the influential evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, one Romney critic who described himself as a solid Republican said the governor's Mormonism made it impossible to vote for him "knowing what we do about the crudeness of its theology, its historically nonsensical account of U.S. prehistory in the Book of Mormon, and the like." In California, the evangelist Harry McGimsey mailed cards that read, "Dear Friend: Mormonism is headed for the White House. If you can use more of our tracts to warn people, please write me."

Still, the anti-Mormon campaign against George Romney never emerged as a major factor in his bid for the White House. In part, this was because Romney failed to become a serious frontrunner in the Republican race, undone by his comment that the U.S. military had "brainwashed" him into initially supporting the Vietnam War. But just as importantly, George Romney's run for the presidency took place in a much different American religious landscape. In 1968, evangelicalism remained an outsider minority religious faith, far from the public prominence and visibility it has enjoyed since the 1980s. Even more so, Mormonism largely existed as a regional religion, mostly contained within Utah and its neighboring states. Little known and lesser understood, George Romney's Mormonism struck most Americans as an inconsequential characteristic.

But the 1970s would change all of this. On the heels of the cultural excesses of the late 1960s, the 1970s witnessed an upsurge in religiosity that profited both evangelicalism and Mormonism. Both faiths experienced huge growths in their adherents. 1976 became known as "The Year of the Evangelical" in light of Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign and polling at the time that found that 34 percent of adult Americans -- some fifty million -- claimed to have undergone a "born again" experience. The LDS Church also saw explosive growth in the 1970s, increasing by 60 percent over the decade and developing into a truly national (and international) religion with some of its strongest growth in the South and the Northeast.

That both faiths were becoming substantially more political and increasingly tied to the Republican Party meant significant changes for the American political system, but it also altered the relationship between evangelicals and Mormons in important ways. Notably, in the 1970s and '80s evangelicals and Mormons found themselves (along with conservative Catholics) on the same side of new hot button political issues, none greater than abortion. While evangelicals appreciated the commitment Mormons showed to traditional values and conservative politics, they also increasingly worried about the runaway growth the LDS Church continued to experience. When the Southern Baptist Convention, evangelicalism's largest denomination, realized in the early 1980s that 40 percent of recent LDS converts came from Baptist backgrounds, it launched a massive educational campaign among its churches about the "cult" of Mormonism.

Southern Baptists were not alone in these efforts. Other evangelical churches, denominations, institutions, and publishing houses devoted huge resources throughout the 1980s to exposing Mormonism as a false and heretical religion. The God Makers, a pseudo-documentary film produced in 1983 by two ex-Mormons who had become evangelicals, became an instant hit among evangelicals, and anti-Mormon books like, Walter Martin's The Maze of Mormonism (1980), topped evangelical reading lists throughout the decade.

Evangelicals have continued to be interested in -- and concerned by -- Mormonism. Type "Mormon" and "cult" into Google and you'll generate over three million hits, many of which lead to the web pages of evangelical ministries aimed at converting Mormons away from their faith. This is the religio-political universe in which Mitt Romney must conduct his presidential bid. Seeking the nomination of a party where evangelicals make up such a large percentage of the members -- and certainly the most vibrant and active wing in recent elections -- Romney can't ignore the question of his religion. In 2008, facing a tough primary challenge from former Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, Romney had to fend off questions about his faith with a speech titled "Faith in America," where, in a move that hearkened back to John F. Kennedy's own declarations back in 1960, he promised no LDS leader would direct his presidential decisions. 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.