Last October, socially conservative activists and politicians gathered for the Values Voter Summit sponsored by the evangelical Family Research Council. With the Republican primaries just months away, Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church of Dallas warned the gathering that “Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.” The non-Christian he had in mind was Mitt Romney, who will soon become the first member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), more commonly known as Mormons, to receive the presidential nomination of a major party.
Jeffress’s comments rekindled skepticism about Romney’s electoral prospects among white, evangelical Christian voters, many of whom regard Mormons as non-Christians. Romney’s struggles with this staple of the Republican coalition during the primaries only added fuel to speculation about his “religion problem.” And now that Romney has secured the nomination, questions turn to whether a general election campaign that spreads the word about his religion and emphasizes the differences between the Mormon faith and their own will demobilize these evangelical voters. Indeed, his commencement address earlier this month at Liberty University, a conservative evangelical institution, was touted as an opportunity to “calm fears that his Mormon faith would be an obstacle to evangelical Christian voters.”
Each election year sees its own version of the narrative about disgruntled partisan reluctance to back the nominee. In 2004, Deaniacs were going to fly to Ralph Nader. Four years later, Hillary Clinton’s primary voters were going to stay home and feast on sour grapes. The trouble with these narratives is that it almost never turns out that way. Disaffected partisans tend to set aside their differences with the nominee by Election Day. But this year’s version is more worrisome as it suggests religious bigotry is alive and well in America.
Will Romney’s religion drive a wedge between him and evangelical Christian voters? In our new Brookings Institution report, we address this question using a survey experiment aimed at simulating the effect of learning more about Mormonism on political opinions. We provided respondents with different pieces of information about Romney’s religion and about Mormon beliefs. Respondents received one of four pieces of information: 1) no information about Romney’s religion; 2) information identifying Romney as a Mormon; 3) information that emphasized similarities between Mormons and mainstream Christians; and 4) information that emphasized differences between Mormons and mainstream Christians.
We find little evidence that any of the information prompts about Romney had more than a trivial effect on his electoral prospects. Respondents in general-and white evangelicals in particular-were just as likely to support Romney regardless of what they were told about Romney’s religion. Surprisingly, even providing information about Mormon beliefs that conflict with traditional Christian beliefs did not decrease support among evangelicals.
A notable exception was political conservatives, who were more likely to support Romney after reading any mention of his religion--regardless of the exact content of the message. Perhaps this is because associating Romney with a traditionally conservative religion makes him appear more aligned with these conservative respondents.
Although our results should not be taken as definitive, they do strongly suggest that concerns over Mitt Romney’s “religion problem” have been overblown and quite possibly miss a compelling counter-narrative. Romney’s religion does not seem to reduce his support among white evangelicals. Instead, information about Romney’s religion may actually increase his support from conservative voters, including among conservative white evangelical Christians. As for Reverend Jeffress, he has experienced a conversion of his own and endorsed Romney last month “in spite of his Mormon faith.”
Matthew M. Chingos is a fellow in governance studies at The Brookings Institution
Michael Henderson is assistant professor of political science, University of Mississippi