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Reviews from conservatives of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s speech on religion have generally been good. Former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Romney did “very, very well.”
“The words he said will likely have a real and positive impact on his fortune,” she predicted.
Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt called the speech “simply magnificent,” but went even further, immodestly declaring, in a way not intended to encourage discussion or disagreement, that “anyone who denies it is not to be trusted as an analyst. ... On every level it was a masterpiece.”
Notwithstanding those assessments (and some polling that suggests he helped himself with his speech), it’s unlikely that Romney’s speech at the George Bush Library in Texas achieved his goal of convincing skeptical evangelicals that he is a candidate they can support.
Indeed, the gushing reviews once again demonstrate that many observers still don’t fully understand why evangelical Christian voters are having a problem with Romney’s Mormon religion. It’s not merely that they disagree with his church on matters of theology or, as some may believe, that they are intolerant. The issue is far more fundamental than that.
Many evangelicals won’t vote for a Mormon for president of the United States for the same reason that almost all Jews would not vote for a candidate (for any office, I expect) who is a member of Jews for Jesus. For Jews, the Jews for Jesus movement is a deceptive attempt to woo Jews to Christianity under the guise of remaining true to Judaism.
Likewise, for evangelicals, Mormons are not “Christians” in the sense that evangelicals understand the term, and by portraying themselves as “Christians,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is deceptively wooing evangelicals or potential adherents away from Christianity.
Evangelicals see Mormons as trying to blur the line between Christianity and Mormonism, just as Jews see Jews for Jesus as trying to blur the lines between Judaism and Christianity.
In each case, Mormons and Jews would not want to elevate to high office someone who might give legitimacy to a group that passes itself off as something that it is not, and that threatens their own group.
Any president’s religious views are likely to receive attention in the national media, and the authority of the office is likely to translate to added authority and respectability for the president’s religion.
Given this fundamental belief (which is hardly irrational), when Romney said, midway in his speech at the Bush Library, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind,” he was actually reminding evangelicals who are uncomfortable with Mormonism that his election would help erase the lines between what they view as the two very different religions.
To people who have been taught as children that Mormonism is a cult and who regard some of the more unusual Mormon beliefs as heresy, one speech from Mitt Romney is not going to allay all of their fears.
For many Catholics and Jews, the idea that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is somehow a threat to evangelical Christianity probably seems absurd. But that is what many believe, and that view makes Romney’s religion a grave concern to evangelicals, no matter how much they agree with the former governor’s views or admire his values.
Anyone who has followed the internal fights of Judaism, with Orthodox Jewish authorities refusing to accept the practices of the Reform, the Reconstructionist or even the Conservative movements, should begin to understand the fundamental problem that many evangelicals have with the Mormon Church.
Many in the media portray evangelical attitudes toward Mormonism as a form of bigotry and religious intolerance akin to the anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic sentiment that was once so prevalent in this country and is much rarer these days. But it is a very different kind of concern, a concern about the meaning of Christianity.
Few in this country would disagree with Mitt Romney’s assertion at the Bush Library that, “A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should be rejected because of his faith.” And just as few would doubt his promise that, if he is elected president, “no authorities of my church ... will ever exert influence on presidential decisions.”
But Romney’s “Mormon problem” bears little resemblance to John F. Kennedy’s “Catholic problem” in 1960. Few evangelicals worry that the former Massachusetts governor will call Salt Lake City for instructions on how to proceed as president.
And Romney’s problem isn’t merely that evangelicals won’t vote for nonevangelicals. They will and they have voted for Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Some have even voted for Mormons for lower office.
Given that evangelicals see Mormonism as deceptive and an attempt to pass itself off as a form of Christianity, one speech about tolerance and the importance of faith is not likely to convince evangelicals to support Romney. I’m willing to bet that American Jews would overwhelmingly feel the same about voting for someone who is a “messianic Jew.”
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.