A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
It's too early to know whether Mitt Romney will realize his dream of becoming the first Mormon president, but he has already made history by achieving a new pluralism in the Republican Party and encouraging a more inclusive focus for the religious right.
I saw that change first hand as a featured speaker at a Battleground States Talkers Tour event in Cleveland last Thursday night. The boisterous, overflow crowd of 1,700 included a prominent portion of evangelical Christians who nonetheless cheered lustily at every mention of a Mormon named Romney, a Catholic named Paul Ryan, and the Jewish nominee for U.S. Senate in Ohio: Josh Mandel, state treasurer, Marine Corps officer, and Iraq War veteran. In conversation and during the book signing afterward, I met Latino Catholics, black Baptists, Eastern Orthodox believers of Serbian heritage, Irish-American cops, a smattering of Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, and dozens of observant Jews.
Had Democratic partisans or pundits from the mainstream media attended this event, they would have found it jarringly incongruent with their image of the Republican base as bigoted, benighted, and born again. Contrary to common contentions that Christian conservatism promotes intolerance and a narrow-minded insistence on biblical literalism, the Romney campaign has assembled a coalition of truly impressive theological diversity.
In fact, it’s Republicans and not Democrats who this year achieved the distinction of fielding the first-ever ticket in the history of the Republic without a Protestant candidate for either president or vice president. Prior to the nomination of Romney and Ryan, in the previous 166 years of GOP history, only one other non-Protestant represented the Republicans: Congressman William Miller, running mate for the ill-fated Barry Goldwater in 1964, who was Catholic. This year, the GOP not only broke through previously formidable religious barriers, but they did so with shockingly little fuss, bother, or even questioning comment.
As recently as this April, conventional wisdom suggested that Mitt Romney’s faith would damage his candidacy, as polls showed one out of five American voters saying they could never cast ballots for a Mormon. It turns out that many of these wary citizens may have been liberals who disapprove of the conservative social positions of the LDS Church; in rallying the religious right to his cause, Romney has encountered far less difficulty than did the previous nominee, John McCain, who was raised Episcopalian but attended a Southern Baptist church. Even Texas pastor Robert Jeffress, who made headlines a year ago by denouncing Mormonism as a “cult” while pushing Gov. Rick Perry for the GOP nomination, has become an enthusiastic supporter of the Romney-Ryan ticket.
Far more significantly, the nation’s most revered and influential evangelical icon also has taken a dramatic, unprecedented role in the campaign. After meeting with Romney, 93-year-old Billy Graham told the press he would be “praying for him” and went on to place striking full-page ads in more than a dozen newspapers across the country. “As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this election could be my last,” the text proclaimed beside the heroic image of Dr. Graham. “I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman. Vote for biblical values this November 6, and pray with me that America will remain one nation under God.” In later versions of the same ad, Graham also mentions “defending religious liberty,” another prominent theme of the Romney campaign. Though he never cites a candidate by name, Graham leaves little doubt which ticket he associates with “biblical values”—especially after the ardent endorsement of Romney by the evangelist’s son Franklin.
Even before the participation of the Grahams, Romney commanded overwhelming support from self-described white evangelicals—with polls showing he will receive up to 80 percent of their votes, outperforming McCain and approaching the levels of Ronald Reagan in his landslide reelection victory of 1984.
The question puzzling many disappointed Obama supporters would be why the supposed anti-Mormon prejudice regularly imputed to born-again believers has played so little role in this campaign.
The answer involves a basic misunderstanding of Christian conservatism by most of its critics, who fail to recognize that the rise of the religious right has been a powerful force for interdenominational unity, not for fractionalization and polarization.
Catholic clergy and lay leaders, for instance, regularly acknowledge that nothing has done more to erase anti-Catholic prejudice than the emergence of the pro-life movement after Roe v. Wade. The close cooperation of traditional Catholics and evangelical Protestants in building opposition to abortion on demand destroyed the insulting old stereotypes of hard-drinking, garlic-reeking, immigrant papists versus sweaty Bible Belt snake handlers and led both groups to new respect for one another.
By the same token, the fervent support for Israel by Christian conservatives has made them increasingly prominent in Jewish-led groups like AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and produced surging Jewish cooperation with CUFI (Christians United for Israel) and its fiery leader, pastor John Hagee. Even before Mitt Romney secured the presidential nomination, religious conservatives felt comfortable with Republican congressional leadership by the Jewish House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and his Catholic boss, Speaker John Boehner. Meanwhile, though evangelical Christians continue to constitute the largest single religious group within the GOP, the current five Republican appointees to the Supreme Court of the United States (John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy) all happen to be Catholics.
In a sense, the enhanced ability for faith-based conservatives to put aside their denominational differences for the sake of political goals stems from a series of challenges by the secular left and from the fastest-growing group in American religious landscapes: the “nones,” or those who claim no connection with organized faith of any sort. These unaffiliated Americans now represent between 15 percent and 20 percent of the populace. Though most of them still profess their generalized belief in God, they’ve been strongly associated with powerful movements for legalized abortion, against school prayer, objecting to religious displays at Christmastime, or the phrase “under God” in the pledge of allegiance and, most radically, for the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex relationships.
To a great extent, religious conservatives have mobilized to resist these changes to the status quo that prevailed before the epic disruptions of the 1960s, rather than to impose their own extremist vision of a theocratic state.
For the religiously committed, the rise of secularism powerfully facilitated the cause of cooperation among fervent believers. In the Eisenhower era, nearly all Americans agreed on basic values and the beneficial impact of organized religion, embracing popular slogans like “The Family That Prays Together Stays Together” and giving top ratings to faith-based TV shows like Life Is Worth Living with Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Within that consensus, interdenominational squabbling remained an affordable luxury, so that the nomination of the first successful Catholic presidential candidate in 1960 inspired far more controversy than the nomination of a Mormon this year.
In an era when people of faith of every stripe feel the force of rising doubt, disaffiliation, and militant secularism, making common cause across theological lines becomes an indispensable survival strategy.
In that spirit, the Romney campaign cites increased support from evangelicals and Orthodox Jews, while counting on reversing Barack Obama’s 2008 advantage among American Catholics as the final key to victory. Exit polls four years ago showed that 40 percent of all voters attended church or synagogue every week (or more), and another 15 percent went at least monthly. If the Republicans can continue to build their lopsided current edge with this clear majority (55 percent) of the national electorate, the final results on Nov. 6 could be far more decisive than generally expected.