frank_talk (2006-28)

Mormons and Christians

Mitt Romney’s success with evangelicals is the X factor in 2008

by Frank Cagle

In 1960 Democrats in the solid South were in a quandary. They couldn’t vote for a Republican for president, given their strong belief in the Holy Trinity: Jehovah, Jesus and FDR. But the Democrats nominated a Catholic in the person of U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, D-Mass. Everyone knew if Kennedy were elected, the Pope would be running the country. If you didn’t know, it was pointed out to you from the pulpit every Sunday. What to do?

The solution for a lot of fundamentalist Christians was not to vote for Kennedy. They voted for Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Now, if you are picky you could argue that by voting for Johnson for vice-president they were also voting for Kennedy. But for a religion famous for arguing about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, it wasn’t too much of a stretch.

It might have been the last election in which the choice of vice-president mattered. Without Johnson on the ticket, Kennedy could not have won. It was also the last election in which the religion of a presidential candidate was an issue. Until now.

There is another candidate from Massachusetts running for president in 2008. Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, is attractive, personable, and has a tremendous track record in business and as chief executive of an almost ungovernable state. But Romney is a Mormon. A recent Los Angeles Times poll confirms what I’ve been hearing for the last six months. The poll revealed 50 percent of liberal Democrats would not vote for a Mormon and 35 percent of conservative Republicans wouldn’t either. Another 33 percent of moderate Republicans say they would not vote for a Mormon. It isn’t likely liberal Democrats would vote for a Republican candidate anyway, but the Republican numbers are worrisome for anyone entering Republican primaries seeking the nomination.

Mormons are conservative in their beliefs, strong on family values and would seem to be compatible for evangelicals. But there are evangelical Christians, especially in the South, who aren’t sure Mormons are even Christians.

We are in the 21st century, 46 years beyond the anti-Catholic rhetoric leveled at Kennedy, so it may seem hard to believe a person’s faith can be a disqualifier for public office. Perhaps Romney will do for Mormonism what Kennedy did for Catholics. The Times poll was a generic question about a Mormon candidate. The results might be different if you were polling about Romney specifically after he has been exposed to the electorate in a political campaign.

Earlier this year the Republicans had a gathering in Memphis of potential presidential candidates and a straw poll was conducted. Bill Frist, with home court advantage, won the poll. But the almost unknown Romney, from Massachusetts, finished second. John McCain finished fifth.

There has been very little reporting on the significance of Romney’s second place finish in a straw poll in the South. There has also been little mention he accomplished it by organizing West Tennessee evangelicals. Evangelicals supporting Romney brought busloads of students from Union College to attend the event. They gave Romney his good showing.

So it is obvious not all evangelicals have a problem with the Mormon candidate. Romney is the X factor in the 2008 Republican primary. It may be Republicans will have more trouble overcoming their innate prejudice against a candidate from Massachusetts than one who’s a Mormon.

McCain leads in the early polls. But Michael Kinsley explained McCain best: Those who disagree with him love him and those who agree with him hate him. I’ve always found much to admire in McCain, but all my conservative friends hate him. Rudy Giuliani, the liberal, pro-choice former mayor of New York, has shown surprising strength in polling, but I can’t imagine evangelicals really supporting him in the primaries. (Against Hillary Clinton? Sure.)

The Democrats have learned they can’t win the presidency without the South. Take away southern governors (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton), the Democrats are 0-7 in presidential elections since 1968.

In 2008 the South will be given a choice. McCain? Not likely. Giuliani? Maybe he’s just a little too liberal. George Allen? Could be the worst presidential candidate since Phil Gramm. That could leave Romney as the last best hope for the Christian Right. If they can get by that Mormon thing.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .