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.