Romney’s high-wire act on religion at the GOP convention

On Thursday night, Mitt Romney will step out at the Republican National Convention to accept the nomination as the presidential … Continued

On Thursday night, Mitt Romney will step out at the Republican National Convention to accept the nomination as the presidential candidate. The question, ahead of this important moment, is not whether but how he will talk about religion.

Certain theistic tropes are often part of political rhetoric: for example, Romney will almost certainly evoke some form of God-ordained American exceptionalism, whether general or via a biblical metaphor (such as America as a “city set on a hill”). This kind of language evokes the vocabulary and metaphors of shared beliefs, while sidestepping sectarian squabbles over contentious points of theology.

What Romney needs, in other words, is to craft a message around what has been called “civil religion.” However, Romney faces some unique challenges, both because of the minority status of his Mormon faith and because of the expectations of white evangelical Protestants, who promise, if things go well, to constitute more than one-third of his voter base in November.

View Photo Gallery: The Republican presidential candidate’s decades as a bishop and stake president demonstrate an assurance with the church, a confidence in his authority and a deep spirituality.

It’s clear that Romney will need to talk about his faith this week. White evangelical Protestant voters nearly unanimously (93 percent) agree that it’s important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs, while almost 8-in-10 (78 percent) Republican voters and two-thirds (67 percent) of voters overall hold the same belief. For some of these voters, however, mere religiosity is not enough: over one-third (39 percent) of white evangelical Protestant voters and nearly 1-in-5 (19 percent) voters overall who say that it’s important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs also say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who had strong beliefs if those beliefs were very different from their own. Worryingly for Romney, two-thirds (68 percent) of white evangelical Protestants say that Romney’s Mormon faith is different from their own.

In addition to the serious theological differences between Mormons and evangelicals (e.g., over the status of the Bible), one of the most persistent challenges for Romney is combating the “alien factor” that popular culture often associates with Mormonism. Fueled by shows like “South Park,” “Sister Wives,” and “The Book of Mormon,” pop culture often undermines Romney’s efforts to connect with voters by portraying Mormonism as an alien, almost cartoonish faith, complete with “magic underwear,” polygamy, and storylines that play out on other planets.

Romney, however, seems to have cleared his first major hurdle among white evangelical Protestants. During the contentious Republican primary campaign, Romney often lagged among white evangelicals, approximately 10 points behind his support levels among Republicans overall. This was particularly true in southern states with large evangelical populations. However, by May, when it was clear that Romney would be the Republican nominee, his support among evangelical voters had jumped to 68 percent, with only 19 percent of white evangelical voters in favor of Obama. Between October 2011 and May 2012, Romney’s favorability jumped 27 points, from 40 percent to 67 perecnt (although in May it was notable that only 7 percent of white evangelicals had a strongly favorable view of Romney).

Against this precarious backdrop, Romney will perform something of a high-wire act in his acceptance speech. His recent interview with “Cathedral Age,” the magazine of the Washington National Cathedral, gives a clue to a twofold strategy Romney is likely to deploy in the speech: 1) referencing God or even Jesus, while avoiding the term Mormon; and 2) emphasizing deeds, rather than beliefs, as the proof of one’s faith, an approach that allows him to speak generally about shared moral values, without wading into theological specifics.

In his attempt to find his footing Thursday night, it will be telling if the GOP names Romney as their nominee, while he declines to reference his faith by name. Romney clearly has a challenge ahead of him, and the convention is a performance without a net: he can’t delve too deeply into the specifics of Mormon theology and practice, but neither can he sit back on his heels and refuse to address it.

View Photo Gallery: Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney announced the selection of his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, in Norfolk on Aug. 11. Afterward, the two climbed aboard the campaign bus for a battleground-state tour.

More from OnFaith:

What makes Mormons tick?

In debate, Romney won’t be able to avoid Mormonism

Mormons rallying brethren around Romney

Mitt Romney and Mormon culture

Ryan’s budget approach at odds with Catholics

Robert P. Jones
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  • XVIIHailSkins

    ‘The United States, to my eye, is incomparably the greatest show on earth. It is a show which avoids diligently all the kinds of clowning which tire me most quickly – for example, royal ceremonials, the tedious hocus-pocus of haut politique, the taking of politics seriously – and lays chief stress upon the kinds which delight me unceasingly – for example, the ribald combats of demagogues, the exquisitely ingenious operations of master rogues, the pursuit of witches and heretics, the desperate struggles of inferior men to claw their way into Heaven.’

    HL Mencken

  • Janadele

    There is no problem for Mitt to outline his faith while not mentioning “Mormon” if that is indeed what he will do. Mormon is a nickname, it is not the official name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and it is Jesus Christ, Our Heavenly Father, and the Holy Spirit who comprise the God Head. So there is no reason for him to mention “Mormon”.

  • hebaber

    Oh good lord, these Evangelicals couldn’t give a flying goddam about metaphysics: their theological commitment is “family values” that is sex roles–hairsprayed plastic women wearing pantyhose. That’s what it’s all about. And of course Mormons do fine by those standards.

  • di89

    And if he says LDS, they’ll get either “Huh?” and have to answer, “You know, Mormons,” or they’ll get LSD jokes, can’t win. If they didn’t like the unofficial name, they shouldn’t have used it in their public service announcements lo those many years.

    And besides, everyone knows “Christ” is a title, not a name anyhow.

  • verbummilitant

    Detract, distract and divide. The Washington Post is at it again. Focus on anything other than the real issues facing our country.

    If we are going to keep this Figuring Faith farce up then where is the article about Obama’s Liberation Theology beliefs? Where is the discussion of his preacher’s g–d America beliefs? Why did Obama refuse to participate in the national prayer day? Why did Obama require that the symbol of Christ be covered up before he gave his speach at Georgetown?

    Oh, I get it. That would detract from Obama. We can’t have that can we? That would be journalism!

  • Beaker3

    areyousaying and his comments are indicative of the problem facing Mormons. There is NO racist scripture in the LDS canon. Granted, many who oppose the LDS Church may interpret some scripture as such, but since the LDS people eschew racism and bigotry, the point is moot.
    —One more point: OK, the LDS did not ordain some folks to their priesthood before 1978. Now they do. What more do people want??? The change took place, so let it be. Dead horses do not respond well to continued beatings. Same for the supposed “gay” issue. Any gay person in the LDS faith who chooses to keep the commandments of God is fully accepted within the faith, and is offered every blessing and opportunity as anyone else. This is just a fact, and the blustering and bigotry of those who choose to continue to ride their high horse of criticism may, and probably will, continue to expose their ignorance.

  • Tornogal

    Beaker2: I guess our definitions of “racist scripture” must not agree. (Your comment, “There is NO racist scripture in the LDS canon.”)

    From the Book of Mormon:

    2 Nephi 5:21-23:

    “And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.”

    “And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.”

    “And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done.”

    “And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.”

    2 Nephi 30:6 (as originally translated (or written; opinions differ) by Joseph Smith said that if Lamanites accepted the true gospel, “…their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a white and a delightsome people.” (After 1981, the term “white and delightsome” was changed to read “pure” — an unusual action for a book considered to be inspired by God in its original version.)

    3 Nephi 2:15: “And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites.”

    But maybe that’s the rub. Maybe Mormons don’t know how deeply racist and offensive those verses are.

    And it is convenient to ignore the MANY racist teachings by Mormon prophets from the pulpits. Mormons claim the words of modern prophets are as significant as any scripture. But when it is pointed out that Mormon prophets have uttered horribly racist teachings, the defense is “Well, he was speaking as a ma


    Brth control and abortion as a mechanism to ease economic conditions is a Nazi ideal, and the woman who founded Planned Parenthood was an avowed racist and profound supporter of eugenics.

    Deficit is only increased by unwanted pregnancy by the poor who refuse to take a social responsibility toward their own bodily functions.

    Condoms are ubiquitous. Birth control has no place in the federal budget, nor does abortion which is being used as birth control by Obama advocates