Conservative Christians are starting to line up behind Mormon Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
But they’re not doing so comfortably, and not without clinging to a last, non-negotiable condition that, ironically, makes the conservative Christian voting bloc the force most responsible these days for the secularization of America.
Last month gave us two studies of Mormonism and the American voter. John Green of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at The University of Akron concludes that “the type of campaign messaging that can sway voters away from supporting Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon will be difficult to counter.” On the other hand, Matthew Chingos and Michael Henderson of the Brookings Institution say that their study shows that Romney’s Mormonism has only a “trivial effect” on voters, and that political conservatives—including Christian evangelicals—are “more likely to support Romney” because he is a Mormon.
So which is it?
The real Christian voter who lies between these two studies is, perhaps, best represented by Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, who late last year characterized Mormonism as a cult and asserted that Christian voters were obligated to vote for a candidate who embraces “historical Christianity.” Jeffress, who is clearly uneasy about Mormonism, now supports Romney. But Jeffress’s waffling is not because of Romney’s Mormonism, as Chingos’ and Henderson’s study would suggest. Rather, Jeffress has decided recently that he can vote for Romney, “in spite of his Mormon faith.”
Pat Robertson followed Jeffress last month with a similarly back-handed endorsement of Romney. “You don’t have Jesus running against someone else,” said Robertson on The 700 Club, ”You have Obama running against Romney.” If Christians don’t have the option to vote for an evangelical Christian, Robertson implies, they can simply vote for the candidate that most seems to espouse the political positions they prefer. That is, religion is not the most important thing in politics.
More to the point, however, is Robertson’s finish: “I can’t imagine that [Romney’s] going to interject the Mormon religion into the way he governs.” This is the condition that evangelical voters set for their grudging support of a non-(traditionally) Christian, but politically conservative, candidate. And it’s the condition that implicates evangelical Christianity as a significant force in the secularization of the country. Romney can be the Christian right’s candidate, but only if he becomes entirely a-religious. The religious voters that Romney is now courting won’t allow him to be religious about anything, not even about issues on which he and they agree.
Proving that he’s as sensitive to political winds as any candidate, Romney has tuned his message and his identity. In a 20 minute commencement address at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University two days following Obama’s public, and avowedly Christian, support for same-sex marriage, Romney offered a single sentence to the hottest political issue of the week: ”Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman,” he said. To justify his position, Romney cited neither God nor Christianity, neither self-sacrifice nor the Golden Rule. The safest, most effective reason Romney could find to justify his agreement with a football stadium full of deliberate Christians was “American culture.”
Unable to field a viable traditional Christian candidate—who would be welcome to inject his religion into the way he governs—the Republicans are about to be the first of the two major parties to give the United States a non-’Christian’ nominee for president. The demand that this nominee eschew his own, genuine faith in favor of the rhetoric of an “American culture” characterized by what Romney now calls “shared moral convictions” rather than by an evangelical understanding of biblical salvation marks a new age in American politics.
The United States now tilts towards a secular state in the mold of Denmark, Sweden, other countries of western Europe whose secularism is reviled by many Christians.
The Christian right’s commitment to maintaining one nation under God has led the the movement into the wilderness. By conceding that they can vote for Romney, evangelical Christians also concede that this peculiar form of Christianity—evangelical Christianity, that is—isn’t a fundamental component of the nation’s structure. Ironically, in this election cycle, self-styled Christian voters themselves are the principal force of their own marginalization.
Of more import, perhaps, is the Christian right’s role in the de-religioning of America. By asserting that Romney’s own religion doesn’t matter to his candidacy, and by insisting that a Romney presidency not in any way be a Mormon presidency, the Christian right demands not freedom of religion in this most religiously free of countries, but demands freedom from religion. Indeed, by hanging its support for the Republican candidate on the condition that he keep his religion out of his campaign and (presumably) out of his oval office, evangelical Christians affirm that public discourse in America is better off without authentic religious faith.
David Mason is associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of “Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage” and “My Mormonism: a primer for non-Mormons and Mormons, alike.”