Evangelicals and Romney: Politics Trumps Theology?

Evangelicals and Romney: Politics Trumps Theology? June 19, 2012

Evangelicals are overwhelmingly indicating support for Mitt Romney in public opinion polls, and writers such as Jonathan Merritt are asking whether this indicates a sea change in evangelicals’ views of Mormonism. Patheos blogger Scot McKnight briefly commented that this support for Romney reveals that for evangelicals, “politics too often matters more” than the particulars of faith.

I don’t see it that way. I think that for many evangelicals, there are settings (i.e. church) in which theology largely trumps politics, and other settings in which politics trumps theology (i.e. the voting booth). That is normal, as we balance our lives in the city of man and the city of God. For example, imagine if Mitt Romney came to a typical evangelical congregation and said, “I am a Mormon, and I want to join your church. Don’t worry about our theological differences, though, because I am a Republican!” I trust this would not fly.

But the voting booth is a different story. Yes, some figures such as Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas rolled out the “Mormonism is a cult” charge during the primaries, but that was when Jeffress was supporting the ill-fated Rick Perry. Other evangelicals supported Rick Santorum, or Michele Bachmann, or Ron Paul. (Of course, some of my evangelical colleagues at Patheos ardently supported Romney.) But the primary season is over, and now the choice (for most voters) is between Romney and President Obama. There’s nothing remarkable about the average evangelical, when faced with that choice, shrugging his or her shoulders and voting for Mitt. In fact, as I have argued previously [“When Baptists Voted for a Heretic”], evangelicals voting for someone of a different faith is both healthy and historically normal.

Merritt also makes a great deal out of some evangelicals not wishing to call Mormonism a “cult.” The ecumenically-inclined Richard Mouw aside, I think this is simply a case where evangelical leaders do not wish to insult Mormons, whom they increasingly see as allies on social issues. It does not indicate a substantial change in theology. Whatever the academic meanings of the term “cult,” its popular use summons images of Jim Jones or the Branch Davidians. I, for one, think that Mormons hold beliefs that are incommensurate with traditional Christianity, but I would never call them a cult.

We should also remember that the question of supporting Romney is, for most evangelicals, directly connected to the values and positions of his opponent. It makes a big difference whether the choice is Romney vs. Santorum, or Romney vs. Obama. When given the latter choice, most evangelicals will conclude that you have two candidates, neither of whom appear to be born-again Christians, so you can really only choose the candidate based on politics.

On social issues, Romney’s long-term record is not consistent. The evangelical reluctance over Romney probably has more to do with his changing positions on abortion and gay marriage than his Mormonism. But I doubt that many will find Obama a preferable alternative.

What would be really interesting would be to have an evangelical Democrat running against a Mormon Republican. Then you would have something closer to a test of the relative importance of personal faith vs. politics. But we already had a version of that in 1980, the first great triumph of the Religious Right. In that election, conservative Christians largely rejected the floundering evangelical Jimmy Carter in favor of Ronald Reagan, who was connected to legions of evangelicals, but whose own faith was opaque, and whose wife was privately into astrology.

In 2012, evangelicals had their chance in the primary. Some of them supported Romney, many others did not. As John Turner noted in an earlier post, the question now is whether enough of those who supported other candidates will be sufficiently excited about Romney’s candidacy (or at the thought of removing President Obama from office) to work for Romney and get their friends to the polls. Romney’s campaign desperately needs this to happen, but only time will tell.

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  • Dandini

    I guess that if it were a “true” evangelical for Christ… they most likely would never be in the running as a Democrat, so not to worry….

    Now if the evangelicals can remember what the Bible teaches…. “…for whoever is not against us is for us…” (Mark 9:40)

    National Study of Youth and Religion, 2005, UNC, Chapel Hill (U.S. Adolescents Ages 13-17) — The Study found that Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) youth were more likely to exhibit Christian characteristics than Evangelicals (the next most observant group)

    A national 2010 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey aimed to test a broad range of religious knowledge, including understanding of the Bible, core teachings of different faiths and major figures in religious history: on questions about Christianity and the Bible, Mormons scored the highest. They also scored second only to Jews in knowledge of Judaism. [Overall, Mormons understand their own doctrines and the Bible better than other Christian denominations.]

    2012, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life released a groundbreaking new survey, the first ever published by a non-LDS research organization to focus exclusively on members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints… According to Pew, “Mormons exhibit higher levels of religious commitment than many other religious groups, including white evangelical Protestants… Looking at basic, core religious beliefs, 98 percent say they believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ… While previous surveys have clearly established LDS agreement with certain key Christian doctrines — Mormons believe in God, believe the Bible is the word of God and believe in life after death…

    2012 – A new study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University- Latter-day Saints “volunteer and donate significantly more than the average American and are even more generous in time and money than the upper quintile of religious people in America… When it comes to the time they spend volunteering, the average adult American LDS member contributes as much as seven times more than that of the average American… Self-interest in this group didn’t apply, which goes against all economics principles.” The published findings further indicate that these “prosocial behaviors” are reflective of Latter-day Saint teachings, which emphasize Christian service and charity to others.

  • John Haas

    You’re right that if a Mormon wanted to join your church, they might run into some difficulty (that is, if anyone bothered to ask about their theology). But the significance of this operates at a more subtle level: Like legalizing gay marriage, Mormonism is inevitably normalized merely by the fact that Romney is the evangelical/Republican choice. Most evangelicals approach the presidency in a more mystical than purely empirical frame of mind: while their church-theology may still say “no” to Mormonism, what will be the outcome of believing that a Mormon is apparently “God’s man for the hour,” the providentially sanctioned choice to lead the nation?

  • TElden

    CULT: n. 1. Church down the road that I don’t believe in, that I want others to fear and hate.
    2. any religious group that’s not mine (Linda Fiatoa)

  • maybe so, John, but God’s providential choice hasn’t warmed them up much to President Obama! yes, Mormonism is being normalized in a civic sense, for evangelicals and others, and there’s no clear boundary between that normalization and seeing Mormonism as a normal/orthodox faith, too. On balance, this is all good, just as the election of Kennedy was good for Catholics’ place in civil society and eventual evangelical/Catholic cooperation. But yes, evangelicals need to maintain the civic/theological distinction. (I know this is a tall order.)

  • all very important evidence of Mormons’ seriousness about their faith. But theological differences still matter.

  • johnturner

    I thought Romney might have an evangelical problem until President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage. That announcement, I suspect, had quite a bit to do with evangelical (and other Republican) support coalescing around Romney in recent weeks. I don’t know how to document that theory, but despite polling that suggests a small majority of Americans now supports the legalization of same-sex marriage, I think Obama handed Romney a big political gift (and potentially quite handy in Ohio, Virginia, and Florida, for starters).

  • John Haas

    “maybe so, John, but God’s providential choice hasn’t warmed them up much to President Obama!”

    I don’t think, honestly, that many evangelicals consider Obama to be a legitimate, providentially sanctioned president.

  • Greg D

    “I don’t see it that way. I think that for many evangelicals, there are settings (i.e. church) in which theology largely trumps politics, and other settings in which politics trumps theology (i.e. the voting booth).”

    In most part I agree. But, I saw the line crossed when Romney (a Mormon/politician) was invited to speak at this year’s Liberty University (a strong conservative, fundamentalist, Bible school) graduation ceremony in which he gave the commencement address. But, now that I think about it… perhaps Liberty is more of a political institution than a religious one.

  • Indeed–but will they feel that Romney is providentially sanctioned? Maybe , if he’s the one who beats Obama.

  • I am sure you are right, John.

  • That’s a great example, Greg–on the flip side, reminds me of when Notre Dame had Obama speak.

  • Dr. Kidd,
    Thanks for this post. While we don’t agree, you offer much to consider. And I take your assertions seriously because of the respect I have for you. Keep up the good work.
    Jonathan Merritt

  • Thanks, Jonathan, for reading and commenting on the post! Best wishes for your work, as well.

  • It is pure economics! The number one reason that so many people are confused about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the Evangelical ministers priestcraft! They always want to refer to the church as the “Mormon church” and call it a cult despite the facts that the name as well as the first principle of the Church includes “faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” and that the articles of faith state that as well as belief in the same organization as the primitive church! Why do they do this? It’s because of their priestcraft! When they lose converts to the church, they lose their money from their collection plates! The leader of the mob who murdered Joseph Smith was one of these false prophet ministers!

  • Gail

    “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgement including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” Now is the time to deal with these issues…not when you stand before Him. The beginning of the chapter is cool, click on the context – it speaks of how we age in an analogy.
    I DO NOT VOTE FOR RINOS! and Romney is a RINO. thinks like a democrat, votes like a democrat…must be a democrat. We do not need the lesser of 2 evils in the WH, we need a REAL CONSERVATIVE. Voting for the lesser of 2 evils is still voting for evil…GOP koolaide. I don’t want that vote on my record when I stand before the Great I AM. to be judged for my actions.

  • Gail

    This Evangelical will NOT be voting for a man who signs legislation to kill the Unborn, grab my gun rights, favors illegal invaders over US Citizens, and can’t create jobs…47th out of 50th for job creation for Mass..and he only plans to TWEAK 0’care..after all he is the godfather of 0’care. If you love 0 you will love Romney. I love neither they are deep dyed SOCIALIST. And I am tired of half my income for 6 months of the year making me a SLAVE to the government for them to live the life style of the RICH and FAMOUS. While our troops are being paid a pittance for getting their behinds shot at, killed or maimed for life. They say they can find no where to cut but the Military and Seniors…TRY cutting their OWN PLATINUM life style first!

  • Dianne Stark

    I thnk Dr. Kidd is correct that sometimes politics gets more emphasis than religion in the political arena and yet in the theological arena, it’s “business as usual” for evangelicals. I’m Catholic and though I didn’t vote for Obama due to his stance on abortion, I was very gratified that he won the presidency. Now, there’s no way in the warmer of the two eternal regions that I’d consider supporting him or even giving a secretive grin that he won. But Romney? Huh-uh! What I dislike most about him is his unctiousness. He’s so smoooooth, so well handled, so scripted. I think Sam Houston (baptised Catholic as an adult so he could buy land in Mexico, but spiritually and finally theologically re-baptised as a Baptist–which finally gave him the Christian peace he’d sought most of his adult life) was right. Political parties are the root of all evil in US government and blind us to the political “worth” of individual candidates. I suspect that we can thank only ourselves for caving to the two bad choices the Democrat and the Republican parties have left us with.