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Analysis: The myth of Mitt Romney’s evangelical problem

(RNS) Mitt Romney has an evangelical problem. Or so we’ve been told by the national media. But there’s one glaring problem with the storyline: It’s not true. By Jonathan Merritt.

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(RNS) Mitt Romney has an evangelical problem. Or so we’ve been told by everyone from The New Yorker to The Huffington Post to The Daily Beast. The national media have perpetuated this narrative throughout the election season, and political pundits aplenty have assumed its reliability in their columns and commentary.

Mitt Romney speaks to crowd in Nashua, NH during a rally for Romney/Ryan 2012.

Mitt Romney speaks to crowd in Nashua, NH during a rally for Romney/Ryan 2012.

But there’s one glaring problem with the storyline: It’s not true.

“Evangelicals say they want a presidential candidate who shares their religious beliefs and they still hold that Romney’s religion is different from their own,” says Robert Jones, CEO of the Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute. “And yet as early as May 2012, shortly after it became clear that Romney was the presumptive nominee, Romney held a 45-point lead over Obama” among evangelicals.

We’ve been told that evangelicals were so skeptical of Romney’s Mormon faith they might not be able to pull the lever for him in the voting booth. But according to Jones’ research, as more white evangelical voters have realized that he is Mormon, his favorability among them has actually risen.

The rift seems to be not among evangelical voters but among some old guard evangelical leaders. Who can forget Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress’ comments that Romney was a part of a “theological cult” at the 2011 Values Voter Summit? And then there was the January summit of more than 150 high-powered evangelical leaders in Texas to determine which candidate should receive their collective blessing.

They endorsed Rick Santorum on the third ballot, but in the South Carolina primaries a week later, Newt Gingrich and Romney took two-thirds of the state’s evangelical votes. In many of the primaries that followed, evangelicals continued to vote for Romney in significant numbers until he became the presumptive nominee. Contrary to the popular media narrative, polls conducted during both the 2008 and 2012 elections showed only a minority of evangelicals said they would not vote for a Mormon.

Nonetheless, the Romney campaign has been concerned about whether the former Massachusetts governor can capture the hearts and minds of American evangelicals. They know he can’t win without them because they are a big part of the Republican base. Actually, they’re almost all of it.

In order to capture these critical voters, Romney enlisted evangelical public relations guru Mark DeMoss to be a senior adviser to the campaign. He’s been called “Romney’s evangelical ambassador” and was tasked with communicating the candidate’s message to conservative Christians. But DeMoss failed to sway evangelical leaders at that secret Texas meeting. Romney did not advance beyond the first ballot, falling far behind Gingrich, Santorum, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

“If Romney wins the nomination, his support is going to be tepid, lukewarm, maybe even nonexistent,” Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association predicted after evangelical leadership endorsed Santorum.

But Fischer’s prophecy proved wrong.

Romney won the nomination, and the faithful have lined up behind him. A new Pew study shows 8 in 10 voters, evangelicals and otherwise, are either completely “comfortable” with Romney being a Mormon or simply don’t care. The same survey found that only 16 percent want to know more about Romney’s faith.

In January, Vanderbilt professor John Greer predicted that evangelicals' feelings about Mormonism would not prevent them from supporting Romney; in May, the Brookings Institution released a study indicating that Romney's Mormon faith had little effect on conservative Christians’ likelihood to support him.

“Concerns over Mitt Romney’s religion problem,” one of the authors of the Brookings study concluded, “have been overblown.”

There are at least two explanations for why Romney’s Mormonism matters so little among this powerful voting bloc.

First, evangelicals seem to care more about political ideology than orthodox theology as far as voting is concerned. Polls show that voters care most about the economy, not faith. It’s why the Tea Party — most of them being self-described evangelicals — have gravitated toward another Mormon, Glenn Beck.

In a letter delivered to the Romney campaign on Sept. 7, more than two dozen conservative Christian leaders declared, “it is time to remind ourselves that civil government is not about a particular theology but rather about public policy.” The assertion is correct, of course, but one can’t help feeling we are witnessing a departure from evangelical politics as we’ve known them. Among the signatories were evangelist Franklin Graham, the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, and other figures who attended the Texas meeting.

Second, any discomfort about Mormonism is outweighed by an even larger disdain for President Obama. Many evangelicals bemoan the last four years of his administration’s policies and they fear what he’ll do if re-elected. As religion professor John-Charles Duffy stated it, “Evangelicals may not think Romney’s a Christian, but at least he’s not Obama.”

Conservative Christians were always going to support the Republican candidate no matter who it was. As it turns out, Mitt Romney never had a serious evangelical problem. The question has always been: Does Barack Obama have a Mitt Romney problem?

(Jonathan Merritt (@jonathanmerritt) is author of “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.”)