08/27/2012 03:58 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2012

The Evolution of Conservative Evangelicals, or How They Came to Love Mormonism

A version of this post first appeared in Rhetoric Race and Religion.

Now that Mitt Romney will formally accept the Republican Party nomination next week in Tampa, one major constituency group within the GOP will find itself wrestling with party vs. faith. The party leaders will ask conservative evangelicals in November to vote for a Mormon. Now, for me and other religious progressives who have been hard at work establishing and working within ecumenical groups and dialoguing with all faiths, this does not pose a problem. For us, religion is about a faithful and authentic response to God and humankind. How one discerns the Divine in one's life is, in the final analysis, a personal decision. Moreover, we do not believe that one's religion should effect how one should vote for president or any political office. Policies matter -- ones the candidate believes in and ones that the candidate's party supports and promises to deliver if elected to office.

However, this is not the case with conservative evangelicals. They are dogmatically Christian, believing that a candidate's religion must reflect their own. Many conservative evangelicals do not believe that Romney is Christian -- believing that the Mormon faith is not a Christian faith. Furthermore, many of these same conservative evangelicals believe that a Romney presidency may help "legitimize a false religion." In 1998, the Southern Baptists, at their Convention held in Mormon rich Salt Lake City, went door to door evangelizing Mormons and promoting a book, "Mormonism Unmasked." Religious conservatives (evangelicals) rallied earlier in the year in Texas to try to support a candidate not named Romney. Santorum emerged as their pick (a Roman Catholic and not a Protestant) but earlier there was even a flirtation from evangelicals with the spectacularly flawed Newt Gingrich.

To be sure, Romney was anathema to many conservative evangelicals. Conservatives brought this out in the open when early in the campaign conservative evangelical declared Mormonism a "cult" and said to an audience "born-again followers of Christ should always prefer [a] competent Christian to a competent non-Christian like Mitt Romney." Commentators have even noticed that Santorum is less than enthusiastic about supporting Romney.

However, not all of this has stopped conservative evangelicals from lining up and supporting Romney. In a recent article, Jonathan Merritt writes about the unexpected evangelical silence on Romney's religion. In the article, he notes that one reason why conservative evangelicals are supporting Romney is theirs and Mormon's support of "traditional marriage" and other political conservative ideals. Nevertheless, this should not make a difference, because theologically, conservative evangelicals should not vote for a person who is a non-Christian.

Maybe therein lies the rub. Maybe conservative evangelicals were hiding behind religious faith and family values all along. Maybe it was never about any of that anyway. Maybe it was all about politics, winning offices and promoting a conservative agenda. If it was about theology, faith and religion, drawing upon the teachings of conservative evangelicalism, they should line up supporting Obama. Obama is the "Christian" who has "accepted Jesus Christ in the pardon of his sins." He is the one baptized into the faith who has affirmed that Jesus is Lord and Savior. Obama repents of his sins and affirms the Triune God of Christianity.

Studies show that Obama talks about faith, religion, Christianity, God and the church more so than any other president in modern history. His speeches are full of religious rhetoric, the speeches at the prayer breakfasts constructs what I call a rhetorical theology aimed at inviting his audience to understand faith. If there is one candidate in the race that conservative evangelicals should support, based on their own previous criteria and theological presuppositions, it is President Obama.

However, conservative evangelicals are going to support Romney in overwhelming numbers and somehow reconcile teachings about Mormonism that call the religion "false," a "cult" or "non-Christian." As an ecumenical religious leader, I want to say that maybe conservative evangelicals are evolving (again something else that would be anathema to many of them) toward ecumenicism and to having inter-religious dialogue. I would like to say that maybe conservative evangelicals would not be so dogmatic in their beliefs -- open up to hear others and become more tolerant to faiths different from theirs. We can hope, but I am afraid that this is only temporary. Conservative evangelical support for Romney is more anti-Obama than pro-Romney and as long as conservative evangelicals believe that President Obama is a Muslim, they can feel good about supporting Romney.