Mitt Romney must tackle his religion

Mitt Romney must face the religion question — again. It’s a persistent and nagging threat to his candidacy. Four years ago, he didn’t have an effective playbook for managing it. The “Hail Mary” pass (pardon the theological pun) was his December 2007 speech in Austin, Texas, wherein he sought to explain his Mormon faith. There was no immaculate reception (sorry again) of the address by the primary electorate, so Romney’s primary season foundered. A new campaign offers hope, but he better get religion right this time or it’ll be déjà vu all over again.

I wrote about all this in a series of three columns published herein about four years ago, predicting that critics would seize upon some oddities of the Mormon faith in an effort to discredit Romney’s candidacy. Actually, the anticipated assault on his religion, at least from professional journalists and pundits, was much milder than I had anticipated. Instead, a quiet smear campaign in some evangelical circles was gutting Romney without any expert assistance.

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So here we go again. Sure, some things have changed. Romney seems to be taking several new and different approaches to issues. His style of delivery is seemingly being revamped. But will thinking about his religion be any different this time? A challenging nominating calendar persists. The Iowa caucuses and South Carolina primary, two early states with a lot of bedrock evangelical, orthodox and fundamentalist Christians participating in the process, could be crucial. Their suspicion of Mormons seems endemic. 

Several crucial factors will nevertheless be different this time around. First, there will be a bigger field of contenders, making it harder for any one candidate to wrap up a nomination early. Romney doesn’t need to win in Iowa or South Carolina to emerge on the national stage, like a Tim Pawlenty might. Romney’s already there. So he can concentrate on New Hampshire while preparing for the longer fight without being too worried about a handful of states that won’t easily get comfortable with a Mormon.

Other things are dissimilar, too. For one, the nation as a whole is more secular than four years ago — even the Republicans — so a candidate’s religion is less relevant to more voters. Actually, I’m not sure whether we’re more secular or just more theologically dimwitted. The typical voter doesn’t have a nuanced Christology that skillfully parses the issues that distinguish the Jesus of the Book of Mormon from the one in the King James Bible. This is where the Romney effort four years ago went wrong, in my opinion, trying to explain or even justify his faith. That’s pretty much useless when many people he’s trying to reassure can’t intelligently give an explanation for their own faiths. 

Most voters can’t succinctly summarize where their theology varies from that of the Mormons, other than to say Romney’s religion is “weird” and “cultish,” a more cultural than religious critique. Romney should start communicating at the point of this apparent cultural disconnect, inviting voters to think more about Utah than Mormon theology. The state of Utah has been governed by Mormons forever, and it’s pretty much like every one of the other 49 states — not a bad place to live and work. Massachusetts, Michigan and other Western states survived Mormon regimes, too. That’s a better starting point for building trust than comparative religion.

There are two other differences today worth noting. One is the emergence of Glenn Beck, also a Mormon, as an influential conservative, admired by the primary base. Not that Beck will or should endorse Romney, but perhaps he tamps down on the cultural-weirdness factor. There’s also that new Broadway play, “The Book of Mormon,” which makes fun of Mormons while unwittingly blessing them. Some Mormons have even laughed. Romney should too. It might clear some air.


David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.