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Romney and the Republicans: Outsourcing Religion

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Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate marks the first time in American history that no Protestant will appear on a major-party ticket for president. Ryan is Roman Catholic, and Romney, of course, is Mormon.

Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic governor of New York, broke the Roman Catholic barrier (nomination) in 1928, and John F. Kennedy became the first, and only, Catholic to win the presidency, in 1960. Romney, formerly a stake president (essentially a lay bishop) for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the first Mormon to win a place on a major-party ticket.

But aren't Mormons Protestants? That would require a much longer conversation, but historians of religion generally do not classify Mormons as Protestants. Many people, in fact, especially evangelical Protestants, deny that Mormons are even Christians -- although Mormons themselves take great umbrage at even the suggestion that they are not Christians. The very name of their church, they hasten to point out, is Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The real puzzle, at least on the face of it, is why Romney didn't choose an evangelical for his running mate, especially if he was so concerned, as widely reported, to solidify his base. The religious right, after all, has been the core constituency of the Republican Party ever since the 1980s. Throughout the primary season, evangelicals were profoundly suspicious of Romney's Mormonism, especially because he studiously avoided talking about it.

Heading into the fall campaign, many evangelicals remain wary, or at least unenthusiastic, about the presumptive Republican nominee. Tapping an evangelical for running mate might have assuaged their anxieties.

So why didn't Romney choose an evangelical? The first, and most obvious, answer is that there was no clear candidate. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas, might have fit the bill, but many Americans suspected he was just a tad too loopy when he pursued the Republican nomination for president in 2008. His tenure as a Fox News host has apparently done little to alter that impression.

After Huckabee, who? Sarah Palin? Well, that's the point -- and the answer to Romney's quandary also goes a long way toward explaining the absence of Protestants on the Supreme Court. Despite George W. Bush's political indebtedness to the religious right, he appointed no evangelical to the Supreme Court; both of his appointments were Roman Catholics.

The evangelicals aligned with the Religious Right have every right to wonder why Romney and the Republican Party are willing to pass them by and defer so frequently to Catholic conservatives. This is especially puzzling because politically conservative evangelicals, more than any other political constituency, have been responsible for the electoral success of Republicans over the past 30-plus years.

Part of the explanation lies in the fact that evangelicals are still relatively new to organized politics (late 1970s) and they still haven't developed a stable of politicians, much less legal scholars, at least at the national level. The Republican Party, therefore, has in effect outsourced its religion to conservative Catholics, witness names like Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and now Paul Ryan. Two of the prime contenders for the evangelical vote during the Republican presidential primaries were Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, both of them Catholics.

Yes, it's true that evangelical suspicions of Roman Catholicism have abated over the last several decades. Still, most political players expect some return for their support.

In the Hebrew Bible, Esau traded his birthright for a mess of pottage. More than three decades ago, politically conservative evangelicals cast their lot with the Republican Party and in the process, many would argue, defaulted on the teachings of Jesus to care for "the least of these."

What do these evangelicals have to show for their partisanship?

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and chair of the religion department at Dartmouth College, is the author of more than a dozen books, including "God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush."