As a political scientist who taught for many years in the Appalachian region of southwestern Virginia, I’ve encountered my fair share of evangelical Protestants. As a conservative Catholic who’s living again in the mid-Atlantic where I was born, I know a thing or two about the religious appeal of Rick Santorum to people in the pews in places like Philadelphia. And as a resident of the American melting pot with ancestors, family and in-laws ranging from Presbyterians to Catholics to Quakers to Mormons to evangelicals, I’ll go ahead and claim some interfaith street cred.
So what’s up with the victories of Rick Santorum, a western Pennsylvania Italian Catholic, in two states, Alabama and Mississippi, where upwards of four in five voters described themselves in exit polls as evangelical or “born-again” Christians? Although the New York Times’ Bill Keller famously misidentified Santorum last year as an evangelical, these voters know better. They knew going to the polls Tuesday that they could choose the LDS Mitt Romney, the Lutheran-turned-Baptist-turned-Catholic Newt Gingrich, or the lifelong Catholic Rick Santorum.
Oh yes, and the Baptist Ron Paul, and therein lies a tale. For the kinds of conservative evangelicals who might once have done well in these states—Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry—were no longer in the race at all. And while Ron Paul may be a Baptist, he is an isolationist libertarian, and there turn out to be precious few of those among southern conservatives, as revealed by Paul’s low single-digit results in Alabama and Mississippi.
The first observation to make about the role of religion in these two deep-south states, then, is that three non-evangelical candidates all did respectably well in a heavily evangelical (and conservative) electorate. Each of the candidates topped 30 percent of the vote. Just a half century ago, John F. Kennedy had to go to Houston to make a case to Baptist ministers that a Catholic deserved a shot at the presidency. (Some Catholics, then and now, think JFK surrendered too much of his faith to mollify his critics.) Only four years ago Mitt Romney felt similarly compelled to reassure voters that a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints deserved a fair chance as well. Now in 2012, we seem past all that.
Yes, there may be an element of anti-Mormon feeling among some evangelical voters. (Such feeling is considerably stronger among the secular liberals of the Democratic Party, for very different reasons.) Exit polls showed that voters who highly prized a candidate who shared their own “religious values” picked Santorum over Romney. But it would be largely speculative to say that this really measured negative sentiment about Romney’s Mormonism. For better or worse, Santorum is widely known as the “social issues” conservative in this race, the consistent defender of life, of marriage and family, and (as he himself put it last night) of the “centrality of faith” in many Americans’ lives. Look at how strongly he did among voters who think a candidate’s “moral character” matters most, and you get the picture.
Romney, by contrast, came well into his middle age—and his governorship of Massachusetts—before adopting an unequivocally pro-life position. Justly or unjustly, suspicions linger that Romney is (in Newt Gingrich’s words) a “Massachusetts moderate,” and not just because of “Romneycare.” In today’s GOP, “moderate” is not a term of praise. And, again for better or worse, no one thinks of that word where Santorum is concerned. Southern evangelicals see, in Santorum, a brother in arms who attends a different church on Sundays. They seem perfectly capable of seeing a Mormon candidate that way. It’s just not clear that they yet see Romney that way.
There are lots of other tantalizing data points in recent exit polls—in Ohio and Michigan as well as Alabama and Mississippi. Santorum’s strength among younger voters, the less well-educated, and the less affluent, for instance—just the sectors of the electorate whose turnout needs encouraging—while Romney polls well with the Republicans who are older, better educated, and wealthier, whose reliable turnout is virtually guaranteed for any GOP nominee . . . including Santorum. While all of that is worth exploring, I’ll mention just two other things related to religion here.
First, some people are scratching their heads over the fact that Romney has polled better among Catholics than Santorum has. Why can’t Santorum do better among his own co-religionists? I suspect we’d get our answer if the exit polls drilled deeper into people’s churchgoing habits. To be “Catholic” in America often means little more than that one took the sacraments long ago, and reflexively identifies with the Church when asked by a pollster, or perhaps falls into the “Christmas and Easter” gang that crowds the pews the rest of us are in every Sunday. I’d be willing to bet that Santorum is handily winning those Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly, remember to eat no meat on Lenten Fridays, comfortably say “consubstantiation” now, and mark the holy days of obligation on their calendars.
Second, Santorum beat Romney handily among women voters, especially married women, in Mississippi and Alabama. So much for the fabled “war on women” of the Republicans (and the Catholic bishops). As the party’s most conspicuous faith-and-family conservative, and the most cogent critic of Obamacare on behalf of every family’s freedom to control its own health care choices, Santorum has probably benefited from President Obama’s egregious over-reaching in this field. And although he hasn’t talked about it a great deal (and should start doing so), Santorum is probably the candidate preferred by many voters upset by the Obama administration’s assault on religious liberty in its HHS contraception mandate. The issue fits him like a glove, and voters can see that it does. The fact that many Southern Baptists have chosen to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Catholic bishops on this issue is no small help to the most “evangelical” of the remaining candidates.
Matthew J. Franck is Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, Visiting Lecturer in Politics at Princeton University, and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Radford University.