The Mormons and the conservative evangelicals… and Romney


One of the biggest mistakes that a political activist can make is believing that: because he thinks some opposing view is “nonsense”–that view doesn’t matter at election time.

Another serious mistake that a political activist can make: relying on the anecdotal and personal to determine trends, rather than watching the election process to determine what the trends really are.

With that in mind, I’d like to summarize the current troubles of Mitt Romney in light of my own experience writing about the American Christian right.

Last summer I interviewed Frank Schaeffer, a man who had literally grown up inside the national Christian right. In the 1970’s Schaeffer’s father was a key figure in the transformation of millions of “Billy Graham” style evangelicals into the formidable political organization. A group of up-and-coming American evangelicals simply decided to break with a longstanding tradition and organize for specifically political purposes. Frank Schaeffer was there, back in the 1970s, when that transformation took place and the national American religious right was formed.

Schaeffer eventually left the religious right, disappointed with the hypocrisy and manipulation and the money and power seeking. These days he’s become a kind of spokesman against the religious right. And last summer, he told me–firmly–that there was no way that Mitt Romney would be the Republican nominee for President in 2012.

The reason behind that thinking is that Romney is both a liberal and a Mormon, and both are anathema to the Christian Right.

Now people who follow politics from a secular standpoint can easily understand why leaders of the Christian Right would reject Romney on the grounds that he is a liberal. Over the past thirty years, the leaders of the evangelical right have succeeded in reconciling conservative political agenda of the moment with doctrinal and biblical Christianity. Liberalism as a political view is regularly denounced in conservative evangelical media around the nation. Romney’s record as a politician in Massachusetts makes him unpalatable to the conservative evangelicals who can stop a presidential nomination.

More than this: Romney’s a Mormon. And because political activist on the center and left take great pains to exclude religious doctrine and messaging from the right–they don’t know how significant that fact is, in national politics.

People who follow presidential politics know that Romney lost a previous presidential nomination contest in Iowa to Mike Huckabee, and they also know why. It was because of Romney’s Mormon faith. Iowa pastors rallied to Huckabee prior to the primary to stop Romney, Romney made a high profile speech to try to explain that his personal religious faith was not and should not be an issue–and then former pastor Mike Huckabee defeated Mitt Romney by 7 points. Huckabee had no money in that contest; Romney had all the money and the backing of national business Republicans–and Romney went down in flames, because he was a Mormon.

Now, activists on my side of the discourse would like to believe that personal religious faith is no longer the big issue that it used to be. After all, we have had a Catholic president and a Jewish vice-presidential nominee who triumphed in the popular vote.

They would like to believe that differences about “supernatural” matters no longer make a difference–when in fact they make more of a difference than ever, especially on the Republican side of politics. The leaders of the Christian right have organized to the point where they can make or break a Republican presidential candidacy. They can stop the bid of any Republican front-runner cold (as they did with Rudy Giuliani.) They can make a previously moribund Republican candidate viable, by signing on to his campaign (as they did with McCain after he put Palin on the ticket.)

So what they believe about the importance of the supernatural does matter in our practical, daily politics–whether you dismiss their supernatural concerns as nonsense, or not.

It matters because the people who lead the evangelical right (even though they’re unelected) are way, way more powerful than you and me, when it comes to selecting the content of the legislature or turn out public opinion. And those same leaders of the conservative evangelical right–are way, way more powerful than any liberal or progressive evangelicals you may happen to know. (I’m not talking about how things should be, I’m talking about how things really at the present writing. And I’m talking about how things have really been for about thirty years in evangelical politics. I’m not talking about “the way things should have been, or “the real message of Christianity.” I’m talking about the message delivered by the Christian right, because that’s the politically powerful one, the one that matters most in election results.)

For about one hundred years, conservative evangelicals all over America have been taught Mormon doctrine presents a false and heretical view of God and God’s will for humanity. This has been a regular message in national conservative evangelical media; this deeply negative view of the LDS church is so common in conservative evangelical messaging that it almost amounts to unofficial doctrine.

Part of the reason that conservative evangelical leaders regularly denounce the bases of the Mormon faith is that they fear what we outsiders might call “a loss of market.” Mormons, like evangelicals, go everywhere attempting to bring more people into their faith. This is doubly dangerous to conservative evangelical leaders. A conversion to LDS belief represents the loss of a “believing Christian” to the evangelical community–and it also represents damnation, because those who choose to worship something besides the true Christ are certainly in danger of damnation…and are leading others to damnation.

Now, liberal and progressive activists are going to say: who cares about this? “I believe that religious belief is a matter of personal conscience, who cares about this Dungeons and Dragons style rule dispute between the evangelical Christians and the LDS?” It’s very foolish to think that–because you’re sure something’s foolish–it doesn’t matter, and it can’t affect you. (It’s like person who believes that because he embraces pacifism, he won’t be affected by “war.”)

This very strange doctrinal stuff is affecting all us, right now, and it may determine the course of a US Presidential election (as it has in the past, over the past twenty years of conservative evangelical preeminence.) You may hurl your derisive insults at these people, and sneer at the bigotry disguised as supernatural doctrine. You are free to continue to simply dismiss all this as nonsense.

But if you think it’s unimportant because it’s silly or hateful, you’re wrong. This “religion in politics” trend is worth your attention and study, because it has far more influence on American policy than you do. If you don’t take pains to study these evangelical conservative leaders and their agenda, you cannot understand how American politics really works, right now.