President Mitt Romney?
OpinionJournal editor James Taranto is excited about the prospects of Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s presumed bid for president.
Mr. Romney could be an attractive presidential candidate. His sunny disposition puts one in mind of Ronald Reagan–he laughs easily and smiles almost continuously. He is a governor, as four of the past five presidents were; but he can claim more international experience than most state executives. In addition to his work on the Olympics, he has served on the federal Homeland Security Advisory Council, chairing its working group on intelligence and information sharing.
Massachusetts, the only state George McGovern carried in 1972, is an unlikely place to find a Republican presidential candidate. The last Bay State Republican to seek the presidential nomination was Henry Cabot Lodge in 1964; the last to win it was Calvin Coolidge 40 years earlier. All 12 members of the state’s congressional delegation are Democrats, and Republicans who win office here tend to be liberals like former senator Edward Brooke and former governor Bill Weld.
Not Mr. Romney, whose views put him well within the mainstream of GOP conservatism. A self-described “fiscal hawk,” he takes credit for staving off tax increases, no mean feat given that the Democrats have a veto-proof legislative majority. When he took office, the state had a $3 billion budget deficit. “We held the line on taxes, we did not borrow more money, and instead we cut back on state programs,” closing the gap. He hopes next year to persuade the Legislature to cut the top income tax rate to 5% from 5.3%.
Mr. Romney’s background as a businessman leads him to think of government in pragmatic terms. “I tend to be more analytical than I think the average politician [is]. I tend to look for a lot of data, and don’t reach conclusions based on . . . political doctrine, but instead based on analysis. . . . I look at each issue and try and evaluate what I think the right answer is.”
Taranto thinks Romney’s biggest liability is his faith.
A crucial question will be whether Mr. Romney’s religion is a handicap. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is indigenous to America, but many Americans view it with suspicion. In a 1999 Gallup poll, 17% of those surveyed said they would not vote for a Mormon for president, far more than said the same of a Jew (6%) or a Catholic (4%).
In 1994 Sen. Kennedy made an issue of the LDS Church’s tardy embrace of racial equality (it did not allow the ordination of blacks until 1978). “I don’t think that’s the reason I lost to Ted Kennedy,” says Mr. Romney, and he’s surely right. In any case, Mr. Kennedy doesn’t seem to have any problem today answering to a Mormon Senate leader, Harry Reid.
Mr. Romney also says religion wasn’t a problem for his father: “When he was running for president . . . he was the front-runner. His faith just didn’t factor in. . . . His statement on Vietnam–that put him under, but certainly not his faith.”
The trouble is that much of today’s anti-Mormon sentiment is found on the religious right, a constituency that looms much larger in the GOP now than it did in 1968, or than it ever has in Massachusetts. Ask a conservative Christian what he thinks of Mormonism, and there’s a good chance he’ll call it a “cult” or say Mormons “aren’t Christian.”
Taranto is not alone in his concern. A not-insignificant number of Evangelicals view Mormonism as a cult. (A quick Google search reveals THE MORMON CULT, Cult Conspiracy by the Mormon Church, Mormonism – Christian or Cult?, MormonsSuck.com: The truth about the Mormon cult!, Mormons Claim They Are Not a Cult, and The Plain Truth about the Mormons.)
As Washington Monthly editor Amy Sullivan explained in “Mitt Romney’s Evangelical Problem, ” this is not just the view of some isolated kooks.
Evangelicals don’t have the same vague anti-LDS prejudice that some Americans do. For them it’s a doctrinal thing, based on very specific theological disputes that can’t be overcome by personality or charm or even shared positions on social issues. Romney’s journalistic boosters either don’t understand these doctrinal issues or try to sidestep them. But ignoring them won’t make them go away. To evangelicals, Mormonism isn’t just another religion. It’s a cult.
The first time I ever heard about Mormons was in fifth grade, sitting in a basement classroom of my Baptist church, watching a filmstrip about cults. Our Sunday school class was covering a special month-long unit on false religions; in the mail-order curriculum, Mormonism came somewhere between devil worshippers and Jim Jones.
Evangelical opinions about the LDS Church haven’t changed so much since I watched that filmstrip more than 20 years ago. In 2004, Mormons were specifically excluded from participation in the National Day of Prayer organized by Shirley Dobson (wife of James Dobson, leader of the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family) because their theology was found to be incompatible with Christian beliefs.
Mormons believe that they are the fully realized strain of ChristianityÃ¢€”hence the “latter-day saints.” They acknowledge extra-biblical works of scripture (such as the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants), follow a series of prophets who claim to have received divine revelations, and teach that God inhabits an actual physical body. This is all blasphemy to evangelicals; they argue that “the Bible explicitly warns against adding to or detracting from its teaching” and refer to the revelations as “realistic deception[s] by the Devil himself.”
Southern Baptists have been particularly vocal about labeling the LDS Church a “cult.” In 1997, the denomination published a handbook and video, both with the title The Mormon Puzzle: Understanding and Witnessing to Latter-day Saints. More than 45,000 of these kits were distributed in the first year; the following yearÃ¢€”in a throwing down of the proselytizing gauntletÃ¢€”the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in Salt Lake City. Around the same time, a speaker at the denomination’s summit on Mormonism declared that Utah was “a stronghold of Satan.” When Richard Mouw, president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, tried to repair relations with the LDS community by apologizing on behalf of evangelicals during a speech in the Mormon Tabernacle last year, his conservative brethren lashed out. Mouw had no right, they declared in an open letter, to speak for them or apologize for denouncing Mormon “false prophecies and false teachings.”
In the wake of Romney-mania, one prominent evangelical has sung a slightly different public tune. Charles Colson told the Weekly Standard in June that he “could in very good conscience support Romney” as a fellow “social conservative on most of the issues we care about.” As recently as late February, however, Colson reminded his radio listeners that “while Mormons share some beliefs with Christians, they are not Christians.” “I respect Mormons and work with them,” he said, “but we can’t gloss over our fundamental differences.” Asked about Colson’s apparent change of heart, Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) told me, “I think Chuck was probably saying the politically correct thing.”
The tragedyÃ¢€”or, depending on your point of view, the ironyÃ¢€”is that Mitt Romney may just be the most appealing candidate Republicans can field in 2008, the one most likely to win the White House by shoring up social conservatives and rallying business interests without frightening swing voters. Yet the modern GOP’s reliance on evangelical voters and its elevation of personal religiosityÃ¢€”strategies which have served the party so well in recent yearsÃ¢€”may doom the chances of this most promising candidate. Or, to put it in evangelical terms, it might be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for Mitt Romney to win the Republican nomination.
While I agree that the “Mormon question” would be a factor, I believe the fact that Romney is a virtual unknown on the national stage is the more serious issue. (For a less serious take on the Mormon angle, see Steve Bainbridge‘s discussion. )
John McCain, George Allen, and others have a more natural fundraising base. While it’s true that he would be a geographic favorite in New Hampshire, McCain has already established a political operation and demonstrated that he can win there. Aside from a handful of pundits, I don’t think there’s much clamor for Romney out there.