Tongues have been wagging for months. Mitt Romney is handsome, charismatic, has only had one wife. He’s generated a heap of support, including from the interior Rocky Mountain West. That includes Utah – the spiritual center of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. And that’s no big surprise.
But it may be a big problem, when it comes to getting the support of the crucial evangelical Christian voting bloc needed to win. You see, though Mormons consider themselves Christian, most evangelicals view Mormons not as Christians at all – but as members of some weird cult.
And, in the case of Romney, he may face an even bigger challenge than wearing the equivalent of a scarlet “M” tattooed on his dress shirt, in place of a monogram. The former governor of Massachusetts has another fashion disaster to contend with when it comes to gaining support among the footsoldiers of the religious right: He’s wearing flip-flops.“The problem with Romney is he’s looking like a man with no principles because he’s flip-flopped – the man simply has not been consistent,” says Rob Boston, a spokesman for the Washington-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
Specifically, as has been noted in Colorado Confidential and elsewhere, Romney’s shifting stance on abortion in particular may be trouble enough. First in 1994 while running for the U.S, Senate and then in his 2002 gubernatorial bid, Romney presented himself as pro-choice. From a 2002 questionnaire:
“I respect and will protect a woman’s right to choose. … Women should be free to choose based on their own beliefs, not mine and not the government’s.”
Romney now says he is “firmly pro-life.” But that, and his position on gays, may spell trouble with the far right – and those positions have already been so thoroughly disseminated that news accounts are noting that he once hired someone who is gay to be his transportation secretary and in 1994, reportedly said: “I feel that all people should be allowed to participate in the Boy Scouts regardless of their sexual orientation.”
Which brings us to James Dobson, founder of the Colorado Springs-based religious media empire and longtime presidential kingmaker. Dobson has reportedly met with Romney, but has appeared decidedly lukewarm – at least publicly – about the candidate.
“I don’t believe that conservative Christians in large numbers will vote for a Mormon but that remains to be seen, I guess,” Dobson said on a syndicated radio program hosted by a conservative commentator, Laura Ingraham, according to the Oct. 2 New York Sun.
“He’s a nice guy. He’s a very attractive man. He’s got a beautiful wife and a lot of his principles and values are consistent with ours.”
This, from a man who more than a decade ago, issued a naked threat to Republican political candidates: he would never, ever support a candidate who was “squishy” on abortion. Later that year, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole lost the election.
But now, with the reality of 2008 ahead, Republicans are sifting through a cadre of potential candidates, and it’s starting to sink in that Ronald Reagan has not risen from the dead. McCain and Giuliani and Gingrich (who’s not even officially in the race) have had a combined eight wives. Brownback and Huckabee and Tancredo aren’t considered, at this point, serious contenders. Fred Thompson may or may not be in.
Yet Dobson or no, the evangelical vote is an important bloc, and at least some of them appear to be putting their early money on Romney, squishy or not.
There’s even a pro-Romney Website, Evangelicals for Mitt, boosting his candidacy. Yet while Mormons certainly consider themselves Christian, there are deep theological differences between traditional Christianity and LDS. As the Washington Monthly noted in an extensive 2005 dissemination of Romney and his “evangelical problem,” as late as 2004, Mormons were specifically excluded from the Shirley Dobson-organized National Day of Prayer, “because their theology was found to be incompatible with Christian beliefs.” Dobson is the wife of Focus founder James Dobson.
Bottom line, Romney may or may not be able to do much to reconcile his pro-choice and pro-gay past, says Americans United’s Rob Boston. But if Romney’s candidacy really takes off, sooner or later he’s going to have to have a serious talk about his Mormon faith – especially if a substantial amount of financial backing is coming from LDS church leaders and power players.
“If Romney were to get the nomination he would have to have a JFK moment,” Boston says – a reference to Kennedy’s comment on Oct. 12, 1960 in which he articulated that, as the nation’s first Catholic president, he would not be taking orders from the Vatican.
“Romney would need a version of that, but the problem is, he couldn’t get up with a call to end the separation of church and state because the religious right would go insane.”
Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential, and a columnist and contributing editor at the Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at email@example.com