On Thursday night, Mitt Romney will step out at the Republican National Convention to accept the nomination as the presidential candidate. The question, ahead of this important moment, is not whether but how he will talk about religion.
Certain theistic tropes are often part of political rhetoric: for example, Romney will almost certainly evoke some form of God-ordained American exceptionalism, whether general or via a biblical metaphor (such as America as a “city set on a hill”). This kind of language evokes the vocabulary and metaphors of shared beliefs, while sidestepping sectarian squabbles over contentious points of theology.
What Romney needs, in other words, is to craft a message around what has been called “civil religion.” However, Romney faces some unique challenges, both because of the minority status of his Mormon faith and because of the expectations of white evangelical Protestants, who promise, if things go well, to constitute more than one-third of his voter base in November.
It’s clear that Romney will need to talk about his faith this week. White evangelical Protestant voters nearly unanimously (93 percent) agree that it’s important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs, while almost 8-in-10 (78 percent) Republican voters and two-thirds (67 percent) of voters overall hold the same belief. For some of these voters, however, mere religiosity is not enough: over one-third (39 percent) of white evangelical Protestant voters and nearly 1-in-5 (19 percent) voters overall who say that it’s important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs also say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who had strong beliefs if those beliefs were very different from their own. Worryingly for Romney, two-thirds (68 percent) of white evangelical Protestants say that Romney’s Mormon faith is different from their own.
In addition to the serious theological differences between Mormons and evangelicals (e.g., over the status of the Bible), one of the most persistent challenges for Romney is combating the “alien factor” that popular culture often associates with Mormonism. Fueled by shows like “South Park,” “Sister Wives,” and “The Book of Mormon,” pop culture often undermines Romney’s efforts to connect with voters by portraying Mormonism as an alien, almost cartoonish faith, complete with “magic underwear,” polygamy, and storylines that play out on other planets.
Romney, however, seems to have cleared his first major hurdle among white evangelical Protestants. During the contentious Republican primary campaign, Romney often lagged among white evangelicals, approximately 10 points behind his support levels among Republicans overall. This was particularly true in southern states with large evangelical populations. However, by May, when it was clear that Romney would be the Republican nominee, his support among evangelical voters had jumped to 68 percent, with only 19 percent of white evangelical voters in favor of Obama. Between October 2011 and May 2012, Romney’s favorability jumped 27 points, from 40 percent to 67 perecnt (although in May it was notable that only 7 percent of white evangelicals had a strongly favorable view of Romney).
Against this precarious backdrop, Romney will perform something of a high-wire act in his acceptance speech. His recent interview with “Cathedral Age,” the magazine of the Washington National Cathedral, gives a clue to a twofold strategy Romney is likely to deploy in the speech: 1) referencing God or even Jesus, while avoiding the term Mormon; and 2) emphasizing deeds, rather than beliefs, as the proof of one’s faith, an approach that allows him to speak generally about shared moral values, without wading into theological specifics.
In his attempt to find his footing Thursday night, it will be telling if the GOP names Romney as their nominee, while he declines to reference his faith by name. Romney clearly has a challenge ahead of him, and the convention is a performance without a net: he can’t delve too deeply into the specifics of Mormon theology and practice, but neither can he sit back on his heels and refuse to address it.
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