Mitt Romney’s religion is the best thing he has going for him.
THEY WERE WORDS THAT still live in infamy. Mike Huckabee—Baptist minister, former governor of Arkansas, and dark horse candidate for the Republican nomination—was being pressed by a reporter for the New York Times Magazine about the religion of his rival, Willard Mitt Romney, before the 2008 Iowa caucuses. The reporter prodded Huckabee with an all-important question facing our Republic: Mormonism—cult or religion?
“I think it’s a religion,” the skinny Arkansan said. “I really don’t know much about it,” he admitted. Then he stepped in it, big time. The Times noted that he asked with an “innocent voice” the following question: “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”
Mormons were quick to pounce on those remarks, charging Huckabee with bigotry of the rankest sort. Scott Gordon, president of the Mormon apologetics group FAIR, called it an “attack question.” A spokeswoman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said that while Mormons believe “all beings were created by God and are his spirit children,” Jesus Christ was the “only begotten in the flesh”; the “son of God”; and the “savior of mankind.” In other words, in Latter-day theology, “Satan is the exact opposite of who Christ is and what he stands for.”
Radio talk show host Bob Lonsberry, a convert to Mormonism from evangelicalism, wrote that the question was really a “hand grenade”—and it must have been, because messy metaphors went flying everywhere. Lonsberry argued Huckabee knew full well what he was asking. The idea was to feed “a firestorm of religious bigotry” and let the electoral inferno reduce his Mormon opponent to cinders. And, Lonsberry added, looking at the Iowa polls, it appeared to be working, damn him: “Judas got 33 pieces of silver, Huckabee got 22 points in the polls.”
It’s difficult to know what’s in a man’s heart, but Huckabee seemed genuinely contrite about the whole conflagration. He likely got the idea from an unforgettable, crazy animated sequence in the anti-Mormon documentary The Godmakers, which has been shown in tens of thousands of evangelical churches. Given the source material, the fact that Huckabee decided to pose that particular question demonstrates a curiosity toward Mormonism, not an animus against it. The Godmakers alleges a lot worse, including brainwashing and conspiracy and “endless celestial sex.”
Though he never got along well with Romney during the primaries, at the subsequent GOP debate, the Baptist minister walked right up to the former Mormon bishop and apologized. Huckabee insisted then and later that the question really was an innocent one. He had not meant to attack the Massachusetts governor’s religion. He just really did not understand it and did not understand at the time why asking questions would stir up outrage.
To all appearances, the two have buried that hatchet. It helps that they are no longer fighting for the same prize, but Huckabee appears sincere and has circled back several times to say that though he doesn’t buy into Mormonism, it’s nothing personal. When Huckabee launched his new radio show this April, Romney was his first guest.
Yet by then the narrative for many Mormons and prominent pundits had crystallized. Huckabee was a demagogue who had cynically used Romney’s religion against him to win Iowa. He had wrong-footed a member of a long-aggrieved religious minority and stuck us with John McCain as the designated Republican nominee to lose to Barack Obama come November. Latent GOP anti-Mormon bigotry was so strong that Huckabee had managed all this by asking one simple, impertinent question.
Four years later, heading into the present election cycle, pundits duly predicted Romney would sail into gale force anti-Mormon headwinds. John Ellis stated this more unambiguously than most on RealClearPolitics.com (the sister website of several sites that I edit). “The fact is that the Republican Party of 2012 is not going to nominate a Mormon as its standard bearer,” Ellis confidently wrote in July of 2010.
The GOP would not nominate Romney because the base of the party is dominated by evangelical voters, and these people could not be made to see reason. The conventional wisdom was that Romney had a “Mormon problem” and the Republicans had a bigot problem. That meant President Obama would have no problem at all coasting to re-election.
BARACK OBAMA can still win re-election, but the conventional wisdom has been badly wrong thus far. It’s worth examining why it has been so far off the mark. The talking heads were wrong because they didn’t quite get the politics and the religious dynamics of Romney’s first loss. That may mean they’ve also misread the tea leaves for the next presidential contest. If so, America will finally get her First Mormon President.
First, the politics. Anti-Mormonism played a highly exaggerated role in Romney’s defeat four years ago. The same month Huckabee stepped in it, Romney insisted in a major speech at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library that “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” He acknowledged that his “church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths,” but he stressed the things that Mormons share in common with Protestants and Catholics. To wit, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.” The speech pitched the idea of a united front: the religious against the more extreme secularists who seek to reduce religion to “a merely private affair with no place in public life.”
That heavily evangelical Republican primary voters didn’t buy into his candidacy right away does not mean that they were passing judgment on Romney’s religion. There were plenty of reasons not to vote for him that had nothing to do with his religion. He was considered a centrist from Massachusetts in a party that is more conservative and now has a Southern base. Romney had learned his moderation in the cradle. His father, auto exec and Michigan governor George Romney, had been the preferred candidate of the Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party against Richard Nixon in 1968.
Mitt Romney flip-flopped and zigzagged a lot and then shamelessly turned around and attacked people for taking the very positions he used to hold. This enraged his primary opponents. Their political consultants found that one of the best ways to attack him was with robocalls that simply replayed Romney’s old words to would-be voters. They could quote him distancing himself from President Reagan, say, or endorsing insurance mandates, or huffily and unambiguously endorsing the right to abortion.
Few of the reasons shouted publicly or whispered privately against Romney four years ago had a thing to do with his Mormonism. At best, it was a sweetener for evangelical voters: “Vote for Huckabee/McCain/Fred Thompson because he agrees with us and, by the way, he’s not a Mormon.” Many Romney backers refused to admit their candidate’s own qualities had something to do with his loss. They blamed the whole tackle box on anti-Mormon bigotry and worried that persistent prejudice would prevent Romney from running a successful campaign in the future.
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H/T to National Review Online