Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
Amid the tweets about Herman Cain’s YouTube ads, suggestions for Halloween costumes and up-to-the-minute notes about the Occupy protests across the country, there’s been a lot of discussion in my Twitter feed about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith and what it means for his electoral chances this time around. But the 140 characters constraint often results in the complexity of the situation getting lost, especially when you remember that, according to Nate Silver, “to the extent that … political interests are dictated by my demographics, [voters] have a lot of competing priorities.” In Romney’s case, the priorities voters carry into the booth with them matters a lot.
In the primary, the biggest problem constituency for Romney is white evangelical Protestants, 8-in-10 of whom say the Mormon faith is different than their own and nearly 6-in-10 of whom don’t think Mormonism is a Christian religion. Even worse news for Romney: they’re the only group that is becoming better informed about Romney’s faith.
From research we’ve done here at Public Religion Research Institute, we know it’s important to Americans for presidential candidates to have strong religious beliefs, even if those beliefs are different from their own. As PRRI CEO Dr. Robert P. Jones notes, this matters “because most Americans are religious, and religion remains a lens through which many evaluate political candidates and measure their identification with them.”
But before you write off Romney’s chances with evangelicals, remember evangelical voters, like every other voting bloc, are more than their religion. Other demographic characteristics and life experiences matter too when they step into the voting booth. Let’s take a quick look back to the 1980s, when Catholic Paul Weyrich and Moral Majority Founder Jerry Falwell set aside their theological differences for a common political cause. Weyrich later recalled Falwell saying, “If you and I were discussing theology we’d probably come to bloody blows. But we’re not; we were discussing politics and so we were blood brothers.”
For Romney, this history is instructive. Based on PRRI research, we know that evangelical voters are three times as likely to identify with Romney’s political views than his religious views. It’s possible that Romney may be able to bridge the religion gap by emphasizing the many political similarities that Mormons share with evangelicals. If Romney is able to bolster his conservative credentials, curry favor with evangelical leaders, and speak about faith and values more generally (as he did earlier this month when he said he’s been “shaped by Judeo-Christian values”) he will be in a better position to appeal to evangelical voters.
It is likely that Romney’s faith will play a role throughout the primary campaign and into the general election should he find himself the Republican nominee for president. Yet despite any doubts or misgivings evangelicals may have about Romney’s religion, there is a good chance that they will support him next fall. After all, in a general election matchup against Obama he will be the most conservative candidate in the race.