Republicans meeting in Tampa this week and Americans watching the GOP convention at home heard a lot about something the Romney campaign hasn't wanted to talk about before: Mitt Romney's Mormon faith. On Thursday night, a series of Romney's fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took to the stage in Tampa to speak about their religion and Romney's leadership in the LDS Church. Later in the night, Romney spent little time discussing the topic that he's mostly avoided on the campaign trail, but he did mention the experience of having grown up Mormon in Michigan. "That might have seemed unusual or out of place," Romney said, "but I don't remember it that way. My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to."
The attention to Romney's Mormonism on Thursday night capped a week of efforts in Tampa to promote Romney as a deeply religious man after a campaign season that had avoided such talk. Throughout the convention, various GOP operatives, conservative pundits and Romney campaign officials repeatedly referred to Romney as a "man of faith" and a "man of God." The convention speakers too made such references, including Paul Ryan's acknowledgment that though he and Romney "go to different churches," the GOP presidential nominee was a "prayerful and faithful" man.
Romney campaign officials insist that they had long intended to wait until Tampa to introduce the story of Romney's Mormon faith into the campaign. "The convention is a good platform for telling all the dimensions of Romney's life," including Mormonism, a senior Romney adviser explained to the website BuzzFeed.
But what the Romney campaign doesn't want to acknowledge is the fact that Romney is talking about Mormonism now because he couldn't talk about it before. The painful but obvious truth is that Romney had to keep silent about his faith until he had won the Republican nomination because his Mormonism proved too much of a liability in the evangelical-heavy GOP primaries.
Since his 2008 presidential bid, Romney has known all too well the difficult burden that his Mormon faith has posed for his political ambitions. Polls throughout this campaign season continued to attest that evangelical Republicans, the party's critical constituency, remained uncomfortable supporting Romney because of his Mormon faith, something many evangelicals regard as a "cult." Conventional wisdom within the GOP began to agree with what a political operative told the Utah Senator Robert Bennett back in February: "If Mitt Romney were Presbyterian, he would be the Republican nominee."
Yet as the 2012 campaign dragged on, new findings offered a glimmer of hope to the Romney camp. Evangelical Republicans began to indicate that even if they had difficulty supporting Romney in the primaries, they would throw their enthusiastic support behind him should he win the GOP nomination, so strong was their desire to remove President Obama from office.
That political bargain is now on full display with leading Republican evangelicals misremembering history as they pretend Romney's Mormonism never posed a problem.
Earlier in the week, Joe Scarborough declared on his MSNBC show that growing up in the South he'd always learned that Mormons were good people and that they were Christians. That's an unusual memory for Scarborough, a Southern Baptist, to hold considering the longstanding attack the Southern Baptist Convention has made on the Mormon faith, as I've written about before.
More surprising was the about-face Mike Huckabee performed in his convention speech Wednesday night, considering how he had used sly anti-Mormon references as he and Romney battled for the presidential nomination in 2008. During that race, Huckabee avoided answering whether he felt Mormons were Christians, but he did wonder aloud to a reporter, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" Stoking anti-Mormon sentiments among evangelical voters in the Iowa caucus that year proved critical to Huckabee's success in the state. Huckabee ended up winning Iowa by nine points over Romney.
But Wednesday night, Huckabee was all brotherly love and Kumbaya when he declared he cared "far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church than I do about where he takes this country."
Such is the political calculation that the Romney campaign and evangelical Republicans have made for each other. Arrangements like this are nothing new in American politics, of course, but this latest iteration reminds us that the Republican Party's depiction of itself as a bulwark of religion against liberal secularism provides a convenient cover to the battle between religious faiths that has been raging within its own house.