Back in the early spring, polls showed evangelical Christians preferred Rick Santorum in certain states during the Republican presidential primary. There was much hullabaloo about evangelical leaders meeting to try to avoid a Romney nomination, and attention-loving Robert Jeffress, the pastor of Dallas’s gigantic First Baptist Church, made a star turn as the attacker of Romney’s Mormonism. This hostility led to much media discussion of Romney’s “evangelical problem”—the supposed challenge the candidate faced in getting religious members of the GOP base on board.
Now we have proof that was another one of this election year’s cycles of baseless hype. A new Pew survey released Thursday found that eight in 10 voters either are either completely “comfortable” with Romney being a Mormon or simply don’t care. White evangelicals are slightly more skeptical, but the poll found that it made no difference in how ardently they support Romney.
This is exactly what always happens, despite how the media treat the evangelical dance with the GOP as more than the charade it is. To be sure, conservative Christian leaders would always love a more visibly on-fire believer like Rick Santorum. But as a few commentators were sharp enough to realize back in the spring, there was never any doubt that evangelicals, one of the GOP’s most committed demographics, would turn out to support whomever the party nominates. They see it as their duty to vote, and virtually any Republican candidate is better than the socialist Muslim that some of them believe President Obama to be.
So on the occasion of the demise of Romney’s phantom “evangelical problem,” there’s a few evergreen lessons to learn about how religion does and does not matter to voters, particularly the evangelicals who at least pay lip service to the idea of being independent from political parties.
1. They don’t pay attention, period. Voters, evangelical and otherwise, pay a fraction of the attention to the minutiae of the campaign trail that political reporters do. Many remain unaware who major evangelical leaders are endorsing. As the Pew survey shows, voters of all stripes do little to seek out facts about the candidates, and what they believe bears little resemblance to reality. Only 60 percent know Romney is a Mormon—nearly half of the electorate. An astounding 51 percent told the pollsters they did not know or believe that Obama is a Christian, including nearly a fifth of the population that believes he is a Muslim. It’s hard for voters to care very much about a candidate’s faith when they have little idea what it is.
2. They don’t vote based on religion. Not only do voters have huge information gaps when it comes to candidates’ religions, but they are not interested in learning more. Another Pew survey released July 24 found that only 16 percent of voters want to know more about Romney’s faith. There are a couple of explanations for that fact; voters may think they already know what candidates believe, or they might not find it particularly relevant to who they plan on voting for.
The latter is certainly the case for a large number of religious voters. Most voters surveyed say the economy is their primary issue, and other evidence suggests that Christians, Jews, and Mormons alike are more likely to vote for a candidate’s policies instead of basing their decision on his or her religion. (The same is true for other groups: immigrants, for example, consistently rate the economy as more important than immigration.) Sectarian political identification may have been alive and well in the JFK era, but it seems to have evaporated since then.
3. The GOP base is united more by ideology than theology. After much speculation during the rise of the Tea Party, its libertarian façade gradually wore off and everyone realized that it was driven by committed Republicans and moneyed organizations with deep ties to the party. It was also heavily evangelical—another piece of evidence that white conservative Christians aren’t just part of the Republican base, they are the Republican base. And just as the once business-dominated GOP has absorbed their conservative social positions, conservative Protestants have assimilated the corporate right’s anti-tax, anti-regulation orthodoxy into their theological worldview to the point that it is impossible to separate the two.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the Tea Party’s most prominent leader: Glenn Beck, a Mormon. To Beck’s evangelical viewers, his theologically inflected political worldview—a jumble of social conservatism, American nationalism, and racial anxiety—was indistinguishable from their own. A few theologically minded evangelical pundits tried to raise suspicion of Beck’s Mormonism, but their caution was drowned out by the roar of a message that resonated with the economic hardship and political frustration on the far right. Romney’s change of position to oppose same-sex marriage was just the icing on the cake.
4. The religious are joining forces. Beck’s pastoral role in the Tea Party might have been the closest evangelicals and Mormons ever came to each other, but it wasn’t their first joint effort. California’s Proposition 8, the now-overturned amendment that banned same-sex marriage, was a darling evangelical cause that leaned heavily on Mormon money and votes to be enacted. Prominent evangelicals may still be calling Mormonism a “cult,” but the fight against same-sex marriage proved more powerful than labels.
Similarly, the fights against abortion and same-sex marriage opened an unprecedented relationship between conservative evangelicals and right-wing American Catholics, groups formerly separated by deep suspicion. Evangelicals have appropriated Catholicism’s theological arguments against the practice, and Catholics have turned more and more to evangelical political tactics. The hierarchy of the two have joined hands for a series of manifestos on social issues, and share a hostile view of President Obama as an aggressor against religious liberty.
It’s no surprise then, that even a dull Mormon chameleon like Mitt Romney is preferable to a sitting president who is perceived to be a Muslim and a socialist, and who at the very least is considered hostile to traditional values, religious belief, and the American “free-enterprise system.” For conservative voters, especially religious ones, there’s only one side to be on—no matter who its leader turns out to be.