Pity Mitt Romney, the object of religious persecution, forced to make a public speech confronting the antagonistic forces that have kept his candidacy down by attacking his faith. As many commentators opined this past week, it’s sad to realize that, almost 50 years after John F. Kennedy’s “Catholic speech,” our nation still hasn’t gotten beyond these biases.
Haven’t we? Actually, there is scant evidence that anti-Mormon bias has held back Romney, who until very recently led the polling in both of the critical early-voting states, Iowa and New Hampshire. Although polls show that, in the abstract, people are less likely to support a Mormon candidate than one of most other religions, those same polls — including one from Vanderbilt University released this past week — show that most of that resistance evaporates when respondents learn that Romney is Mormon.
In fact, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll taken just before Romney’s speech showed that his Mormonism makes nearly as many people more likely to vote for him as less.
What hurts Romney, according to that poll, are his changing positions on important issues. Asked which candidate says what he believes, rather than what people want to hear, Romney ranked last of the major GOP presidential candidates, by a wide margin.
And yet the same media — and more important, the same evangelical Christians — who previously discarded Romney’s words as phony political calculation, greeted his “Mormon speech” as heartfelt and authentic.
“His speech was directed at mainstream evangelical churchgoers,” says David Woodard, a political-science professor at Clemson University. “They were reassured that they can vote for him as president.”
David Caton, founder of the Florida Family Association, called the speech “a grand slam.” Similar positive reactions came in from prominent Christian conservatives on the cable news networks immediately following the speech, and, according to Woodard, in churches the following Sunday.
How did Romney do it? By tapping into a deep-running sense of persecution among American evangelicals.
Whereas Kennedy asked Protestants to vote for him despite the bias against his faith, Romney, with a keen ear for the contemporary Christian right, asked them to vote for him because of that bias.
No, Romney was not taking from JFK’s playbook — he was taking from Mel Gibson’s.
Gibson turned his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ into a mega-blockbuster by convincing evangelical Christians that this was a movie that “they,” the secular New York and Hollywood anti-God elites, didn’t want you to see.
Romney now claims to be the candidate “they” don’t want you to vote for. If evangelicals rose to the bait for Gibson’s film, what’s to say they won’t similarly rally to Romney’s cause?
The parallels are striking. Gibson’s film grossed more than a half-billion dollars. Will the strategy work as well for Mitt as it did for Mel?
Faith under attack?
Today’s Christian conservatives cling to a belief that their faith is under attack from the coastal secularists who wage war on Christmas, seek to remove God from currency and the Pledge of Allegiance, indoctrinate children in evolution, take the Ten Commandments off of public buildings, and portray believers as crazed, dangerous people. Romney ran through a litany of those alleged assaults in Thursday’s speech.
“I hear evangelicals say it [that they are persecuted by secularists] all the time, and it drives me crazy because it’s not true,” says Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. “They believe, ‘We are a victimized minority.’ ”
Plenty of Republican candidates speak to this fear of the anti-God secularists, but Romney brings something that others — not even Baptist minister Mike Huckabee — cannot. That is, Romney actually belongs to a religion that has been persecuted in this country.
“There is one group that could say that, and that is Mormons,” says Wolfe. “Theirs really has been a history of persecution.”
In Thursday’s speech, Romney coldly appropriated that history to connect himself with the persecution fantasies of evangelicals, lamenting that there are those who “would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion” or even “disavow” its tenets.
And who, according to Romney, said such a thing? Those who are “intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism”; those who “regard religious freedom as something to be destroyed”; those who persecuted Brigham Young along with two early heroes of American Baptists: Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams; and those who offer either a modern Europe of empty cathedrals or else an Islamist “creed of conversion by conquest.”
If indeed there are such forces at work in America today, it is unlikely they are exerting much influence on the GOP nominating process. To the extent that anti-Mormon bias is working against Romney, it is coming from a small percentage of rabid evangelicals. That small pocket of resistance went unmentioned in Romney’s speech — they will never vote for him, Woodard says, and were not the intended audience for the speech.