At the New Humanist: Mormon Momentum

My second piece for the UK-based New Humanist, in which I get to indulge in my persecution obsession a bit.

When Rick Santorum dropped out of the race for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, many conservative evangelical voters in the US knew they’d have to throw their weight behind Mitt Romney, who has since won the Republican nomination. Predictably, evangelical leaders immediately began publicly to support Romney – a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, i.e. a Mormon – despite longstanding denominational suspicion of his faith. If their eventual embracing of the candidate came with private rending of garments and gnashing of teeth, many of the more outspoken leaders hid it well in their public statements.

To be sure, many conservative evangelical leaders point to Romney’s perceived lack of “true” conservative credentials – and not his religion – as their main concern about the candidate. But questions about religion remain, perhaps more for conservative evangelicals than for any other voting bloc. That’s why pastors (many of whom had previously preached against Mormonism) have urged their flocks to support Romney in spite of his Mormonism. At least two prominent Southern Baptist leaders – Richard Land and Robert Jeffress – used those very words.

Reverend Jeffress, of course, is the same megachurch pastor who called Mormonism a “cult” last October, while introducing Rick Perry, his preferred candidate, to the Values Voters Summit. So, how did the message on the man trying to be America’s first Mormon president shift from “cult” to “candidate”? Part of the story is the way both Romney and the evangelicals have been deploying the language of “common ground”.

While some old-school evangelical leaders do not carry the influence they did within the party (Romney’s nomination is good evidence for that), their influence isn’t nearly small enough for Romney to be able to ignore them. Evangelicals still make up a significant portion of the Republican base. Romney has reached out to them by walking a fine line between shared values and different faiths. This approach was out in full force at his May commencement speech at Liberty University, a Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia founded by the late doyen of the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell. Speaking to graduates of Liberty, one of the biggest institutional footprints of the old-style political evangelicalism, Romney declared that “marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman”, triggering a standing ovation. As that moment indicates, Romney’s speech focused on perceived common values between those in the crowd and his own beliefs. He then produced another unifying experience: both Mormons and evangelicals, he implied, are made to suffer for their faith. “Our values will not always be the object of public admiration,” Romney declared. “In fact, the more you live by your beliefs, the more you will endure the censure of the world.”

Read the rest at the New Humanist. Or pick up the print edition if you’re in the UK.

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