No Saints Need
John C. Green and
It was clear from the outset that Mitt Romney would have a
problem with evangelicals—or, more precisely, with the Republican Party’s
The antipathy of evangelicals
to Mormons is an old and familiar journalistic storyline. One of the more
notable recent examples of it occurred in 1997, when the Southern Baptist
Convention held its annual meeting in Salt Lake City. The entire corps of
religion reporters showed up for an expected donnybrook—which, of course,
never materialized, because everyone was very polite, especially the
In the 2008 campaign cycle,
Amy Sullivan was first out of the blocks with “Mitt Romney’s Evangelical
Problem,” a September 2005 Washington Monthly article whose subhead
said it all: “Everyone wants to believe the Massachusetts governor’s
Mormonism won’t be a problem if he runs in 2008. Think again.”
In due course, there were data
to back her up. According to a September 2007 Pew survey, 39 percent of
white evangelicals confessed to having unfavorable opinions of Mormons, as
opposed to 46 percent who said they had favorable ones. This compared to
unfavorable/favorable numbers of 21-62 and 21-59 among white mainline
Protestants and Catholics, respectively.
Likewise, a poll conducted a
couple of months later by political scientists at Vanderbilt showed that
evangelicals viewed Mormons with much greater hostility than any other
American religious group—as much as they reserved for atheists.
As with the anti-Catholic
“whispering” and “underground” campaigns against Al Smith in 1928 and John
Kennedy in 1960, evangelical hostility remained for the most part sub
rosa. But at least one prominent evangelical pastor, Robert Jeffress of
Dallas’ famous First Baptist Church, weighed in, not against voting for a
Mormon per se but against imagining that a vote for a Mormon would be
equivalent to voting for a “Christian.”
“It’s a little hypocritical
for the last eight years to be talking about how important it is for us to
elect a Christian president and then turn around and endorse a
non-Christian, Jeffress told the Dallas Morning News on October 18,
2007. “Christian conservatives are going to have to decide whether having a
Christian president is really important or not.”
While we must await an inside
account of his campaign for the definitive answer, it seems pretty clear
that it was in order to neutralize evangelical opposition that Romney chose
to position himself as a party-line social conservative in his race for the
Republican presidential nomination.
Besides opposing same-sex
marriage and abortion as Massachusetts governor, he also—in a state where
biomedical research counts as a major industry—turned thumbs down on
embryonic stem cell research. This actually put him at odds with his
co-religionists in the U.S. House and Senate, all of whom supported it in
keeping with the LDS belief that “ensoulment” does not take place until the
embryo’s implantation in the womb.
Perhaps the most notable
moment in Romney’s effort to quiet evangelical concerns came in late October
of 2006, when the candidate met with leading evangelical lights, including
Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, and Richard Land, and assured them that he,
like them, accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
What seems to concern
evangelicals most about Mormons is their claim to be Christians—a claim that
evangelicals reject out of hand. In November of 2007, Jonah Goldberg of
National Review’s Corner
blog, quoted from some of the many responses he received to a post he
made on evangelical anti-Mormonism. In the words of one evangelical:
The sharper the contrast
between Mormon and orthodox Christian doctrine, the better....To address
one obvious objection, voting for a Jewish, Muslim, or even atheist
candidate does not carry the same set of concerns. Unlike Mormonism,
none of these other belief systems attempt to position themselves within
the Christian faith.
Another comment, along whose
lines Goldberg said he received “piles,” ran:
Speaking for myself, there is
no policy that I think a Mormon would pursue that I find objectionable.
I will not vote for a Mormon because they claim to be Christian, when
they are not Christians. Electing, or even nominating, a Mormon
continues to send the message to Americans that Mormons are fine and
dandy, Christians like everyone else. Thousands of Christians are
converted to Mormonism each year, and it is done under false pretenses.
From what I have read, Mormons are very good at appearing to be orthodox
Christians with new recruits. It’s only later that the blatantly
non-orthodox views come out. So, I rule out voting for a Mormon not
because of actual policies they might pursue, but because of the message
their election would send to Americans.
Let me make a couple more
quick comments. I would vote for a Jew. I would vote for a Hindu, an
Precisely because of such
sentiments, Romney’s strategy of minimizing Mormon distinctives may have
been a mistake. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) suggested as much, as did Richard
Land of the Southern Baptist Convention when he imaginatively proposed that
Mormons hold themselves out as “the Fourth Abrahamic religion.” A more
accurate and perhaps even useful idea would be for Mormons to identify their
faith as “Judeo-Christian”—inasmuch as their longstanding claim has been to
restore ancient Israel as well as early Christianity.
Be that as it may, it is worth
trying to determine the extent to which Romney’s bid for the Republican
nomination was hurt by a lack of evangelical support. Any such determination
should take account not only of anti-Mormon sentiment but also of the more
widespread accusation that Romney had changed too many of his prior
positions for political convenience.
For the charge bore some
relationship to the sentiment.
Had Romney not been concerned
about evangelical resistance to his candidacy, he could have avoided the
flip-flop charge by, well, not flip-flopping. Making himself out to be less
of a social conservative would have made it easier to run on his undisputed
strength as a policy wonk, economic sophisticate, and competent manager.
Moreover, turning himself into
a party-line social conservative may actually have intensified evangelical
Just as people who change
positions are deemed untrustworthy because they claim to be something
they’re not, so, in evangelical eyes, Mormons claim to be something they’re
not; namely, Christians. By shifting to embrace all the “moral values” of
evangelicals, Romney may have only reinforced their conviction that Mormons
are people who sail under false pretenses.
In this regard, it’s important
to recall that Romney’s candidacy was supported either directly or
indirectly by many evangelical leaders and others on the religious right,
including Chuck Colson, Bob Jones III, Richard Land, Tony Perkins, Gary
Bauer, Ralph Reed, and Paul Weyrich.
Indeed, the candidates’ guide
of Focus on the Family Action amounted to a covert endorsement. Tellingly,
senior vice president Tom Minnery declared (mistakenly) in an FFA broadcast,
“Mitt Romney has acknowledged that Mormonism is not a Christian faith, and I
appreciate his acknowledging that.”
The widely shared mantra from
such pro-Romney leaders in late 2007 and early 2008 was: “We’re electing a
president, not a pastor.”
Yet the evangelical rank and
file withheld the hem of its garment—especially after former Southern
Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee emerged as a credible alternative. As Romney
advisor Mark DeMoss, who once worked for Jerry Falwell, recalled in a Pew
Forum interview last August, “I heard repeatedly from people who said, ‘How
can you support a Mormon when we have one of our own running for president?
We should support one of our own, a fellow Southern Baptist.’”
Huckabee, towards whom
religious right leaders were decidedly cool, was not above playing the
anti-Mormon card himself. In Zev Chafets’ December 17, 2007 profile in the
New York Times Magazine, for example, the former Arkansas governor
asked whether it wasn’t true that Mormons believe Jesus and Satan to be
siblings. In his campaign literature, Huckabee did not scruple to identify
himself as a “Christian leader.”
Faced with Huckabee’s growing
appeal to the party’s evangelical base, Romney gave the speech on religion
that, it seemed, he’d been trying to avoid having to give from the beginning
of the campaign. In it, he criticized sectarian religious appeals and played
up “moral values” in politics, paralleling evangelical leaders’ line about
presidents and pastors.
That was on December 6. Less
than a month later, Iowans caucused and the primary season was off to the
races. A glance at the exit polls makes it clear that evangelicals never
warmed to him. The question is whether they doomed his candidacy.
A good place to begin to
answer it is by discovering how Romney fared in the Republican primaries and
caucuses as a whole, and how these results related to the presence of
evangelicals. Figure 1 (see below) lists the GOP
nominating contests in order of the percentage received by Romney, ranging
from a low in Arkansas and to a high in Utah, measured by the solid line.
This ordering reflects in part
the path of the campaign. Romney started poorly with a loss to Huckabee in
the Iowa caucuses and to John McCain in the New Hampshire primary. He
recovered with victories in the Michigan primary and in the Nevada and
Wyoming caucuses. But this recovery was followed by defeats in the South
Carolina and Florida primaries, which set up as a set of disappointments on
Super Tuesday, notably in the South.
How much did evangelicals have
to do with these results? The dotted line in Figure 1 shows white
evangelicals as a percentage of adult population in each state. The shape of
this line and the Romney vote is suggestive: Overall, Romney did worst in
states where the evangelical population was large and best where the
evangelical population was small.
Across the South, from Florida
to Oklahoma, Romney lost; elsewhere, he achieved a number of victories. The
Iowa caucuses are an exception to this pattern because evangelicals are not
especially numerous in the Hawkeye state. However, Iowa evangelicals have
been highly mobilized politically since 1988, when they shook up the
Republican nomination contest by sending Pat Robertson to a second-place
These aggregate patterns fit
the available primary exit poll data. For example, Romney received 11
percent of the white evangelical vote in South Carolina compared to 36
percent in Michigan. Of course, evangelicals were more important in South
Carolina, accounting for 55 percent of GOP primary voters as compared to 33
percent in Michigan.
In sum, evangelicals tended to
oppose Romney everywhere, but the opposition was largest where evangelicals
were most numerous, a factor compounded by a large number of evangelicals in
Of course, evangelicals were
not the only cause of Romney’s electoral problems. He faced viable opponents
who were also out of favor with some evangelicals, notably McCain; and the
winner-take-all rules of most GOP contests turned small margins at the
ballot box into big gains in the delegate count.
Nor can one assume that the
evangelical vote was entirely motivated by anti-Mormon sentiment. For
evangelicals to prefer a fellow evangelical like Mike Huckabee need have
been no more the result of religious prejudice than it was for Mormons to
back their co-religionist, as they did. In fact, the dashed line in Figure 1
showing Mormons as a percentage of the adult population in each state tends
to parallel Romney’s success at the polls.
Still, these patterns suggest
that evangelical opposition made the difference in Romney losses in key
contests at critical junctures in the nomination campaign. To probe this
possibility more fully, we analyzed the patterns in Figure 1 using a common
statistical technique, multiple regression analysis. This technique allows
us to determine if the evangelical population of a given state had an
independent effect on Romney’s fortunes once other factors are taken into
Here a simple statistical
model of a state’s population worked quite well: The combination of just
three measures (the white evangelical and Mormon population, and McCain’s
percentage of the vote) predicted 71 percent of the variation in the Romney
vote across these states—a strong finding given the crudeness of these
McCain was Romney’s principal
rival for the nomination overall, and thus the McCain vote is a good control
for the competition Romney faced from other Republican candidates. As one
might expect, the McCain vote had a negative effect on the Romney vote, all
else taken into account. However, the two religion measures each had an
independent impact about twice the size of the McCain vote, with the
percentage of evangelicals in the state having a negative impact and the
percentage of Mormons a positive impact on the Romney vote.
Thus the evangelical vote had
a negative impact on Romney’s vote totals. But how much of a difference did
that vote make in the final result? We can use our simple model to answer
the question by making different assumptions about the size of the
evangelical population and calculating what the Romney vote would have been
under those assumptions, with all else remaining equal.
Accordingly, Figure 2
(below) plots three lines. The solid line is the
Romney vote predicted by the model based on the actual percentage of
evangelicals in each state. The two other lines give a Romney vote under two
The first assumption, embodied
in the dotted line in Figure 2, shows what the Romney vote would have been
were the evangelical population in each state equal to its proportion of the
national population (22 percent). This assumption effectively makes the
impact of evangelicals the same in every state. Put another way, it
simulates a situation where the evangelical segment of the population
constituted a constant in all nomination contests.
The second assumption,
embodied in the dashed line in Figure 2, shows what the Romney vote would
have been assuming that the evangelical population did not exist (set to
zero). In effect, this second assumption removes the impact of evangelicals
as a voting bloc in every state. It simulates a situation where evangelicals
voted the same way as other Republicans.
Note that the dotted line in
Figure 2 is higher than the solid line in a number of southern states. The
difference between the two lines shows that Romney would have won four of
the five (only missing in Huckabee’s own state of Arkansas), including the
crucial South Carolina primary.
Such victories would have
substantially improved Romney’s prospects for winning the GOP nomination.
But note that he still would have lost the Iowa caucuses to Huckabee and the
Florida primary to McCain, while doing less well in a number of states
outside the South. This evidence suggests that the variable size of the
evangelical population compounded Romney’s problems in key states.
The dashed line in Figure 2 is
higher than the solid line in all the states. Here the difference
between the two lines shows that Romney would have won in the South
including Florida, plus Iowa and maybe even McCain’s home state of Arizona
as well. In short, under the no-evangelicals assumption, Romney would surely
have been the Republican nominee.
Thus, it appears that Romney
lost the nomination because of his inability to win evangelical votes. Of
course, the analysis cannot specify how much of a role anti-Mormon sentiment
might have played. All that we can say for sure is that there was abundant
evidence of it, and that it helps explain why evangelicals were so loath to
vote for Romney.
Viewed from this perspective,
it seems likely that Romney made a strategic error in aggressively seeking
evangelical support by altering his social issue positions. Doing so likely
weakened his appeal to Republican voters outside the social conservative
fold, and may even have lost him ground among evangelical voters, not only
by playing into their anti-Mormon views but also by underscoring the
importance of religious criteria in choosing a president.
During the Bush years, many
rank-and-file evangelicals had heard repeatedly from their leaders about the
value of electing a “Christian” president, and according to the teachings of
their churches, a Mormon candidate failed to meet the test. It proved
difficult for many of these same leaders to argue that evangelicals should
support Romney because of his support for “moral values,” especially when
there was a viable “Christian” candidate in the race.
This turn of events is ironic
because the leaders of the religious right have not been especially
sectarian in their politics, making common cause with social conservatives
from many religious backgrounds—including Mormons. One lesson of the Romney
campaign may be that the religious right needs to make a concerted effort to
preach a gospel of issues-over-religion to the evangelical rank and file.
In fact, there was a good
example of this kind of issue-based coalition in the 2008 general election:
the passage of California Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage. Mormons
prominently joined evangelicals and Catholics in organizing the
pro-Proposition 8 campaign, helping to assemble a broad coalition that
included not only white religious voters but also African Americans and
If Mitt Romney manages to
capture the GOP nomination in 2012, he may have Proposition 8 to thank for