Why Mitt Romney's Mormonism Doesn't Matter

Evangelicals have a problem with his religion, but they'll get over it

mitt romney
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Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally at Barn, Harmon Tree Farm in Gilbert, North Carolina.
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I've never been impressed with the argument that Mitt Romney makes for a weak Republican nominee because conservatives don't like him. That's not how that party works. Like they say, "Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line." Don't believe me? Think back four years. When the race was still up in the air, the venom aimed at McCain was ten times worse than anything being suffered by Mitt. I collected the stuff back then: Rush Limbaugh said McCain threatened "the American way of life as we've always known it"; Ann Coulter said he was actually "a Democrat" (oof!); an article in the conservative magazine Human Events called him "the new Axis of Evil"; and Michael Reagan, talk radio host and the 40th president's son, said "he has contempt for conservatives, who he thinks can be duped into thinking he's one of them."

Then McCain wrapped up the nomination, and Mike Reagan suddenly said, "You can bet my father would be itching to get out on the campaign trail working to elect him." One thing Republicans understand: In American elections you have to choose from among only two people – not between the perfect and the good.

This year the pundits honk that Romney faces an even more fraught minefield than McCain did, because he is a Mormon – and the Evangelical base of the Republican Party won't vote for a Mormon. The New York Times recently introduced us to R. Phillip Roberts, the president of a Southern Baptist seminary and author of Mormonism Unmasked – subtitle: "Confronting the Contradictions Between Mormon Beliefs and True Christianity" – who chases around the country preaching that the likes of Mitt Romney are heretics. The Newspaper of Record then asked its readers "to understand the gravity of their theological qualms": While "traditional Christians believe in the Trinity: that God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all rolled into one," the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints holds "that God the Father and Jesus are separate physical beings, and that God has a wife whom they call Heavenly Mother." They backed the claim up with statistics: Just one-third of white Evangelicals in a Pew poll last November said Mormons were Christian. And what kind of Evangelical wants a president who isn't Christian?

I think they'll get over it. In American religious history, theological qualms tend to get pushed aside when politics intervenes.

Consider that little more than a generation ago, Catholics had it even worse than Mormons do now. "Theological qualms"? Try this one on for size: Once upon a time many, if not most, Protestant fundamentalists identified the Roman Catholic Church as nothing less than the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth – the dreaded "Whore of Babylon" described in Revelation 17 and 18. More prosaically, they identified Catholics as an alien force. Billy Graham reassured his followers in 1960 that it was legitimate to vote against Catholic John F. Kennedy out of religious prejudice, because the Roman Catholic Church "is not only a religious but also a secular institution, with its own ministers and ambassadors."

You may have heard of the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Nowadays Evangelicals despise it as a heathen outfit bent on banishing God from the public square. (Here they celebrate the civil liberties victory represented by the display of a Flying Spaghetti Monster next to the Nativity scene at the courthouse in Loudoun County, Virginia.) A generation ago, however, Evangelicals were fans – back when the group was known as "Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State," and was the institutional home for those who feared the Roman church was a wicked conspiracy to colonize the United States.

All this started changing in the 1970s. Fighting abortion had once been an almost exclusively Catholic crusade; indeed much of the work Americans United for the Separation of Church and State was devoted to fighting those attempting to ban abortion, on the grounds that such attempts sought to introduce into government "a biased religious viewpoint." Which was around the time Evangelicals began separating themselves from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. They, Evangelicals, wanted to ban abortion too – and were now willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with Catholics to do it. Christianity Today, the magazine founded by Billy Graham, advised its readers in 1975 not to fear joining the "pro-life" cause; it had "matured," and could "no longer be dismissed as a group of cold-hearted Catholics simply taking orders from the Pope."

Within a decade, that patronizing language concerning Catholics had largely disappeared from Evangelical speech. The theological qualms were pushed aside – by a theologian. In the 1970s, Biblical scholar Francis Schaeffer devised a doctrine of "cobelligerency" to explain how Evangelicals could join forces with people they believed were going to hell, so long as it was to do battle with the true Satan: liberalism and all its wicked, wicked works – specifically, abortion.

Indeed, to get that far had required a prior revolution, an even greater one, also pioneered by Schaeffer: a shift away from the earlier Evangelical conviction that to mess around in worldly politics was sinful in the first place. As a soon-to-be-famous preacher put it in 1965:

As far as the relationship of the church to the world, it can be expressed as simply as the three words which Paul gave Timothy – "preach the Word." ... Nowhere are we commissioned to reform the externals .... Believing the Bible as I do, I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ, and begin doing anything else – including fighting Communism, or participating in civil-rights reforms.

By 1976, however, that same preacher, whose name was Jerry Falwell, managed to shake a different message out of his Bible: "This idea of 'religion and politics don't mix was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country." When the Moral Majority was founded in 1979 with the aim of electing an Christian right president, Jerry Falwell was its figurehead – but its three of its most important organizers, Paul Weyrich, Terry Dolan, and Richard Viguerie, were Catholics. In many ways the differences between Evangelical Protestant theology before and after the rise of the Christian right were as profound as the differences that split Protestantism from Catholicism in the first place, in the 16th Century.

And yet, in a remarkably short time, no one was blinking an eye over the changes. Theology can be convenient like that. Now we have a Supreme Court consisting of four justices sympathetic to the Christian right: Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Antonin Scalia. All are Catholics, and I'm certain that when one of them rules their way on outlawing abortion, there won't be many Evangelicals worrying about the Whore of Babylon – not even John Hagee, the fundamentalist preacher who flirted with the Harlotry theory of Catholicism as late as 2008 before renouncing it, he said, "out of a desire," of course, "to advance greater unity among Catholics and Evangelicals in promoting the common good" – that good being the election of John McCain and the defeat of Barack Obama. Viva cobelligerency!

The Evangelicals walking point on the position that Mormonism is unacceptable do so in language strikingly similar to the way they characterized Catholics generations ago. As the Baptist college president quoted by the Times put it, they fear "the Mormon Church will use [Romney’s] position around the world as a calling card for legitimizing their church and proselytizing people." But they're getting over it. Here is Billy Graham's much more political son Franklin, for instance, speaking in December on the air of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network: "the fact that he is a Mormon doesn’t bother me at all."

That's the way cultural change works in America: the rest of us discard a prejudice that the right still clings to; in the fullness of time, the right comes around too, deploying clever rationalizations to forget they ever bore the prejudice in the first place. (Take their treatment of Martin Luther King – they went from initially blaming him for his own death, to, by the 1990s, lionizing him as a conservative role model – as an example.) Then they move on to some new existential terror, and the cycle repeats itself.

Not so long ago, a black man marrying a blond woman was a lynching offense among American reactionaries; now we have a black man, a reactionary himself, married to a blond woman, on the Supreme Court. I like to imagine, as a thought experiment, the day, perhaps not too far off, when a Republican president nominates a Supreme Court Justice married to someone of the same sex, maybe even with the sanction of "orthodox" theology – with that gay Supreme Court justice casting the deciding vote that finally overturns Roe vs. Wade. It could happen. When the siren song of cobelligerency beckons, theological qualms tend to fall away. That's the way it's always been.

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for RollingStone.com.

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