Romney and the Religious Right: Mormonism Wasn’t the Problem

More than a few pundits and commentators raised the question of whether or not the Evangelical Religious Right would be comfortable supporting a Mormon for the office of the Presidency of the United States.

That was a silly concern.

It’s true: the vast majority of conservative Evangelicals do not consider Mormonism to be a valid strand of Christianity. Many, in fact, deem it a “cult,” which is exactly the designation Evangelical figurehead Billy Graham used to describe Mormonism on his website prior to rubberstamping Governor Romney’s candidacy. It’s also true that conservative Evangelicals were much less excited about the prospect of a Romney candidacy than the idea of a Santorum or Bachmann ticket.

But most people were connecting the wrong dots. Evangelicalism’s collective unenthusiasm towards Romney wasn’t about Mormonism or doctrinal distinctions. As I’ve said before, when it comes to voting, conservative Evangelicals don’t care about doctrine nearly as much as they care about a cluster of social issues and political positions that they believe are necessarily connected to their doctrines. It’s been that way since the beginning of the Religious Right’s courtship and subsequent marriage to the GOP.

Jerry Falwell–the Fundamentalist preacher who organized the Moral Majority in the early 1980’s–made it clear that his fledgling group was neither a religious group nor a political party. Here’s how Falwell described the Moral Majority in 1981:

Today Moral Majority, Inc., is made up of millions of Americans, including 72,000 ministers, priests, and rabbis, who are deeply concerned about the moral decline of our nation, the traditional family, and the moral values on which our nation was built. We are Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Mormons, Fundamentalists–blacks and whites–farmers, housewives, businessmen, and businesswomen. We are Americans from all walk of life united by one central concern: to serve as a special interest group providing a voice for a return to moral sanity in these United States of America.

The Moral Majority, as originally conceived, claimed to support both the separation of church and state and pluralism. Falwell wrote, “We do not endorse political candidates….We are committed to principles and issues, not candidates and parties.” The Moral Majority was concerned with a host of issues, including abortion, pornography, world hunger, racial injustice, humanism in public schools, genetic engineering, and euthenasia. “But by the 1980’s,” a scholar of Evangelicalism named Barry Hankins writes, “no issue was as important as abortion.”

As the Moral Majority took shape as a voting bloc, opposition to abortion became a litmus test for political candidates. So while the Moral Majority originally did not set out to endorse any particular candidates or parties, their concern with abortion funneled them neatly into the ranks of the GOP as Republicans branded themselves as the pro-life party over against the Democratic Party. So for single-issue voters committed to the overturning of Roe vs. Wade–whether in the 1980’s or 2012–political choices are generally very simple.

This was more complicated. Romney tried to stake out the standard GOP position on abortion–no exceptions except in cases of rape, incest, or life of the mother. He even told crowds that, as president, he would definitely overturn Roe vs. Wade if the legislation was brought to his desk. But most people weren’t buying that line from the guy who ran as a pro-choice Republican in Massachusetts. Voters can tolerate a surprising amount of flip-flopping from their candidates, but throughout his political career Romney had taken every position imaginable on abortion. Who could possibly know his real beliefs?

It is likely that the choice of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate was meant to signal Romney’s pro-life sincerity to his base. Ryan, unlike Romney, has very consistently held hard right views on abortion. But even if the choice of Ryan as his running mate helped Romney with conservative Evangelical voters, it wasn’t enough. In a race decided by swing voters, no amount of Evangelical enthusiasm would’ve been likely to tilt the scales nationally in favor of Romney. The Moral Majority crowd has long been a key GOP constituency, but it has never been a true electoral majority in and of itself.

Despite all of the media buzz, Romney’s Mormonism was very likely not a relevant factor in so far as the outcome of the election was concerned. And Romney’s religion might have been less of a factor with conservative Evangelicals than the electorate at large. To think that conservative Evangelical Republicans would cast their votes (either actively or by withholding support for Romney) for our pro-choice, mainline Protestant, Democratic President over a pro-life (at least as of late) Mormon GOPer was naive. The Religious Right has always been about political and social issues, not doctrine.

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