Rick Santorum’s evangelical appeal

As a political scientist who taught for many years in the Appalachian region of southwestern Virginia, I’ve encountered my fair … Continued

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.

Curtis Compton


Rev. Richard Lee, right, prays with Rick Santorum, his wife Karen, and three of their children, from left, John, Sarah Maria and Daniel, at First Redeemer Church in Cumming, Ga., on Feb. 19.

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.

View Photo Gallery: Scenes of religious faith meeting politics in the 2012 campaign.

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.


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  • UomoDelGhiaccio

    The problem that Rick Santorium has is that beneath all of the pandering on the Social Issues beats the heart of a Big Government Washington DC Insider. Rick Santorium has cast himself as a blue collar candidate, but in reality he stands for the Political Class. Social Conservatism is just his vehicle to gain power.

  • harkers

    The only voter group Santorum’s got is the Evangelist Anti Mormon vote. When the percentage of Evangelics are high enough he wins. Their hate overwhelms Santorum’s flaws that will ultimately result in four more of Obama!!!

  • charminman2

    Exactly. And yet, as pointed out by Harkers, above, the Anti-Mormon feelings created and cultivated by Evangelical leaders over the decades are sufficiently compelling to overcome what is obvious to others. Yes, there are other issues, but that one seems to trump them all with a significant number of the Evangelicals., though in polls they’d rather not reveal their bigotry. Generally, forthem, it has become a matter of voting AGAINST a Mormon, rather than for a candidate who, taken on the whole, is less qualified, and much less conservative than they are.

  • raywadsworth

    Romney is a good man, I believe he lives his religion. He has worked hard to gain a good education, and found demand for his skills in society. He is someone we can look up to, and pull on his education and experience to help keep America great. He, being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, should be an interesting side note, but only that. There are many famous people who are members of this chruch.
    A small percentage of folks that join the church, or were born into it, leave it for what ever reason. Most just stop attending, and sort of dissapear. It happens in all Churches I’m sure. But, for some reason, in the “Mormon” church, something different happens. Some people become clearly Anti-Mormon. In the past it lead to mob rule, and murder. Infact many thousands of mormons died as a result of these actions, either by exposure or murder, including some of my family. Now, because some think all is fair in politics, the “Anti” element is at work again. it starts by making fun of beliefs by twisting the truth, or distorting the truth, and if that doesn’t work it becomes more violent by burnings, if that doesn’t work, it leads to murder. This is exactly how Christ ended up on the cross.

    to judge a mormon (and Romney) by the Anti propoganda is never going to be correct!

    Listening to the Anti information would make a normal person ask themselves, how can anyone ever belong to that church, especially if they have a brain in their head!! and yet, the Church is full of doctors, professons, inventors, business men and women of all kinds in almost every country on earth.

    The hope is, that if some one wants to learn about the Church, they will go to Mormon.org, or just ask your neighbor (who might actually be a Mormon).

  • thomasmc1957

    Anyone who doubted there was a connection between Right Wing Republicans and the Mullahs of Iran, should now be convinced. Gays, contraception, porn, what’s next? Virginity tests, crimininalizing masturbation, and a Cabinet position for the Office of Vice and Virtue?

  • JosephD1000

    Santorum, a religious zealot who can’t keep his mind out of everyone else’s pants, and Romney, running to be the Mormon pope of wall st. Some choice.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    It is truly amazing to me how disciplined mormons are on these threads. They never fail to direct people to the exercise in propaganda that is their official website, one that would literally make Goebbels blush.

  • Catken1

    I have no problem with Mormons living and practicing their faith as they believe. I object when they try to force their own beliefs on us, as they did when they worked hard to pass Prop H8 in California, attacking other people’s marriages and families and children because their choice of spouse violated Mormon taboos.

    How would you react to a religious group that attempted to have your marriage vetoed and legal rights and protections taken away from your family and children, because they objected to your choice of consenting adult spouse for some religious reason? Would you accept calmly their right to tell you how to live and whom to marry according to their religious rules?

  • Berbs

    This article is a rather lame attempt to dismiss the anti-Mormon hate and bigotry as minor and irrelevant, when in fact most voters and pundits readily agree that Romney would already have been the nominee if he were an evangelical. Yes, it’s a big deal, but anti-Mormon hate and prejudice are slowly (very slowly) melting away, perhaps trailing racism by about 30 years.

  • usapdx

    All voters should know Ricky’s full history. Ricky should read the Constitution and ask questions.

  • peaceman2

    One interesting thing about this is that Mitt’s version of Christianity teaches that all good people go to heaven, and he seems to get the Catholic vote, Santorum is a Catholic, and he seems to think that protestants 9and almost everyone else) are guided by the devil, but he gets the protestant vote…. ?

  • ccnl1

    Why the Christian Right no longer matters in presidential elections:

    Once again, all the conservative votes in the country “ain’t” going to help a “pro-life” presidential candidate, i.e Mitt Romney, Newton Leroy Gingrich, Ron Paul or Rick Santorum, in 2012 as the “Immoral Majority” rules the country and will be doing so for awhile. The “Immoral Majority” you ask?

    The fastest growing USA voting bloc: In 2008, the 70+ million “Roe vs. Wade mothers and fathers” of aborted womb-babies” whose ranks grow by two million per year i.e. 78+ million “IM” voters in 2012.

    2008 Presidential popular vote results:

    69,456,897 for pro-abortion/choice BO, 59,934,814 for “pro-life” JM.

    And the irony:

    And all because many women fail to take the Pill once a day or men fail to use a condom even though in most cases these men have them in their pockets. (maybe they should be called the “Stupid Majority”?)

    The failures of the widely used birth “control” methods i.e. the Pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and S-TDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or condoms properly and/or use other safer birth control methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.

    i.e. If the Pill and male condoms were used properly, abortion would probably not be an issue and Obama would not be president.