Can Romney ace the evangelical Christian base?

Originally published in The Sacramento News & Review June 21, 2012

It’s the doubt that clouds many a Mormon’s prayers: Will Mitt Romney motivate his party’s evangelical-Christian base to turn out and vote Republican on Election Day?

Arguably the most prominent Mormon in the world, the question of whether Romney can capture conservative and evangelical Christians is a major point of national political debate. Does it matter that Romney is not a traditional Christian? That he doesn’t believe in the Holy Trinity?

“You’re going to get a lot of different answers from different people,” admitted Pastor Rick Cole, of Sacramento’s Capital Christian Center.

Indeed, as many national church leaders have noted, evangelical Christians have been reluctant to embrace Mormonism, a sect of Christianity that emerged in the 19th century as part of the restorationist movement. They argue that the 14 million Mormons worldwide deviate too far from traditional Christianity.

This is because “[their] authority is the Book of Mormon,” reminded Brad Nystrom, a professor of humanities and religious studies at Sacramento State. Or, he explained, Mormons don’t view the Bible as the final word.

This faith gap came to a head earlier this year, when mega-evangelical pastor Rick Warren went on TV and cited the issue of the Trinity and the Book of Mormon as major sticking points for evangelical Christians. “That’s the historic doctrine of the church. Three in one, not three gods. One God in father, son and Holy Spirit,” he said. “Mormonism denies that.”

But Allison Coudert, professor of religious studies at UC Davis, says it’s the wrong call to assume evangelicals won’t turn out for Romney like they did for President George W. Bush.

“There are 2,000 different sects, denominations of Christianity,” she pointed out. “And who is to say which one has it right?”

Many mainstream Christians and secular voters, for instance, have limited knowledge about the Mormon religion because Mormonism is somewhat secret, Coudert added.

In spite of these differences, however, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently reported that Mormons are still predominately Republican: 66 percent identify themselves as conservative and 74 percent identify as GOP supporters.

And, perhaps surprisingly, Pastor Cole told SN&R that, for him, a candidate’s faith isn’t a deal breaker.

“For me, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “When it comes to whether a person is capable as a leader, I think we have to be careful to look at their whole ideology. … Our Constitution is based upon the freedom of religion. It will matter some, but it shouldn’t be, in my mind, the decisive question.”

Nystrom agreed that “most traditional Christians have a live-and-let-live attitude toward Mormonism.

“They don’t recognize the Book of Mormon, but since they aren’t involved with [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], it doesn’t matter much to them what Mormons believe.”

He added that a similar issue arose when John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, was campaigning for the presidency, an office typically held by protestant Christians.

“In that presidential race as well, the religious affiliations of the candidate mattered to many voters,” Nystrom said.

Cole did say, though, that there are evangelical Christians who aren’t on board for either Romney or President Barack Obama. And that morality can apply to more things than just faith.

“To me, economic issues are moral. World affairs and what we do with other governments is moral,” Cole said. “It’s all, to me, quite interconnected.

“We’re not going to agree with everybody on everything, [but] it doesn’t mean we throw them out because we don’t line up on a particular issue. There’s a whole lot more to it than ‘Is he Mormon?’ and ‘Is he Christian?’ I think it’s possible for Christians in good conscience to vote for a person of a different faith.”

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About Amy Wong

I'm a story-chaser.
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