If you’ve followed the election coverage much over the past year you may have realized how absent Mitt Romney’s faith was from the national conversation. This marked a big shift from his 2008 bid when his Republican opponents attacked him on his faith early and often. Over the past few months it has been Romney’s Mormon faith has been a glaring omission from his stump speeches and formal interviews. The reason was obvious. If Romney has any chance of winning in November he has to win a solid majority of the evangelical vote and, as I’ve pointed out before, this is not as easy a task as many have presumed.
This decreased enthusiasm in support for Romney among white evangelical voters is tied to their overall view of Mormonism: “The greatest skepticism about whether Mormonism is a Christian faith is among white evangelicals (42% of whom say it is not).” This may not keep Republican white evangelical voters as a bloc from voting for the Romney/Ryan ticket in November, but it is likely to dampen voter turnout among this group at least some, and likely result in continued distrust, or at the least discomfort, with Mitt Romney.
At the Republican National Convention last week, though, the Romney campaign began working to turn this (real or perceived) weakness into a strength. Numerous Mormons spoke, hoping to offer a picture of a sensitive and compassionate Mitt Romney. One couple, the Oparowski’s, spoke of how Romney had been there to console them when their 14-year-old son was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and how he offered the eulogy at his funeral. It was truly touching. The Oparowski’s painted a picture of what is best about religious communities and they placed Mitt Romney squarely in the foreground.
It is easy as one who follows politics closely and as a cynic generally to see these stories as calculated moves to try to win votes, and in one sense that’s exactly what they are. But there is another side, the human side. Nothing negative can be said about Romney’s compassion in that situation or of the empathy he showed with Pam Finlayson’s daughter was born prematurely with a host of health issues. These are the types of stories that the Romney campaign hopes will define his character with voters in November.
And yet I cannot resist assessing the political. These are precisely the kind of stories the Romney campaign needs. The Obama campaign has worked hard all summer to paint Mitt Romney as someone of questionable ethics, noting his use of tax loopholes such as the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, and Swiss bank accounts that, while legal, show someone determined to pay as little in taxes as possible. The Obama campaign has also put a lot of effort into attacking Mitt Romney’s time at Bain Capital, highlighting examples of Bain‘s involvement in loading up companies with debt, making massive profits, and then cutting it loose. The message is simple: Mitt Romney doesn’t play by the same set of rules as the average American.
So the Romney campaign needed to combat this message by showing that while he may be worth $200 million he is someone who feels compassion just like the rest of us. When neighbors are hurting, he is there for them. And, it is important to note, it is his faith that guides him in this manner. Let us not miss how often he speaks of his “faith” and how little his speaks of Mormonism or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Romney himself mentioned “Mormon” once in his acceptance speech and some of the Mormon speakers who spoke before him on the final night of the RNC opted for the language of “pastor” – a more familiar term with evangelicals – as opposed to “bishop” – the proper term for his lay leadership position.
The Romney campaign has become more comfortable talking about his faith, this is evidenced by its prominent final night role at the RNC, but there are two aspects that must continue to be nuanced about this conversation. First, Romney seems to have gotten comfortable just as they are sure they have solidified the evangelical vote. Many conservative evangelicals who in the past have vowed never to vote for a non-Christian are planning on voting for a Mormon – a huge win for the Romney campaign considering 42% of white evangelicals do not consider Mormonism a Christian faith. Second, the Romney campaign is not oblivious to the reluctance of many white evangelicals to vote for a Mormon, hence the language of “faith” instead of “Mormonism,” the language of “pastor” for “bishop” and so on.
This reluctance to talk about his faith has made sense from a polling perspective, but it has also likely been influenced by his desire not to have the press asking questions about his faith. In light of the RNC, though, some are saying the press now has permission to ask tough questions about his faith.
We’ve so far treated Romney’s religion as a binary biographical fact: Is it proper for us to mention it or not? Tonight Romney has officially given us permission to treat his faith as an important part of who he is. So let’s stop talking not about if we’re ready to have a president who is an adherent of an outlying faith. Instead let’s ask the more important question about Romney: What would it mean to have a president whose leadership skills were honed while wielding the power and authority of a church?
I do certainly think that the Romney campaign’s newfound openness about his faith does give the press and the electorate freedom to ask more questions about it and it’s role in his life, yet I am still reluctant to sign on to questions of this nature. I think that having no religious test for office is one of the best qualities of our country (though we clearly still have an implicit religious test graded by the electorate – no Muslim or atheist has yet come anywhere close to being the nominee of a major party) and my experience has been that these types of questions rarely offer the insight we are hoping for, but instead serve the attempts of others to paint a candidate as extreme, or radical, or fringe (remember the Jeremiah Wright kerfuffle for Obama in 2008). On the other hand, though, the role of a person’s faith in his/her life is extremely important to a large portion of the population and many think it is important to know how one’s faith commitments will affect his/her decisions in the White House. A Zionist Christian, for instance, should be asked questions about his unquestioning fealty to the state of Israel. With that said, understanding the necessary and appropriate questions to ask about a politician’s faith is not an easy task and I do not profess to know exactly where the line should be drawn.
At the end of the day, though, it seemed to me that the focus on Mitt Romney’s faith was the strongest point for him at the RNC. It offered a glimpse into a part of his life that he has largely kept hidden and the story offered is likely to be especially moving for people of faith that were already inclined to vote for Mitt Romney and some who have yet to make up their mind. The question I think many Romney supporters will be asking is why he didn’t do this earlier.
Editor’s note: This blog was previously published an Associated Baptist Press commentary.