Romney Campaign to Surrender Evangelicals in 2012

This post has been corrected

Word from inside the Mitt Romney 2012 presidential campaign team is that Romney will abandon his 2008 strategy of seeking to win over social conservatives—evangelical or born-again Christians—for whom his Mormonism is a major deterrent.

In 2008, the Romney campaign had hoped the candidate’s clean-cut, family-man profile would be enough to win over socially conservative Christians, many of whom harbor deep misgivings about Mormonism fed in large part by a thirty-year campaign of “spiritual warfare” against Mormonism begun in the 1980s by evangelical Christian anti-“cult” ministries.

Romney’s 2008 candidacy was consistently shadowed not only by evangelical Christian anti-Mormon animus but also by general public misunderstanding of Mormonism and popular ridicule of Mormon beliefs and practices. Romney opponents and media personalities mocked everything from arcane nineteenth-century teachings by LDS Church leaders to the daily wearing by observant LDS Church members of devotional garments under one’s street clothes, a deeply personal form of religious practice dear to Mormons as an expression of personal commitment to the faith.

Last time around, televangelist Bill Keller even declared that a “vote for Romney is a vote for the devil.” (This week, Keller is using the same logic to go after conservative media heavyweight Glenn Beck, who is also Mormon.) In the hard-fought Iowa caucuses, Romney lost the evangelical vote to Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee by almost thirty points. Sixty percent of Iowa Republican caucus-goers identify as evangelical Christians.

This time around, the Romney campaign’s decision to quietly set aside the hopes of winning the support of evangelical Christians is likely to have significant strategy impacts not only in Iowa but also in the South. For now, the Romney campaign seems focused on making endorsements—now numbering 100 or more—in key 2010 races, including successful GOP gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley in South Carolina.

This strategy shift reflects a refinement of the Romney 2008 campaign’s tactic of downplaying the candidate’s faith entirely as well as a renewed focus (taking a page from his friend California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman’s playbook) on emphasizing Romney’s can-do know-how as a successful businessman. Romney’s December 2007 George Bush Presidential Library address—billed by his campaign as a major statement on faith and public life—tellingly skirted the hot topic of his Mormonism almost completely. His recent book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness (2010) offers only a few scant mentions of the candidate’s deep Mormon roots and a simple two-page statement on the importance of “Belief and Purpose” in public life.

Romney’s emerging 2012 strategy makes a certain kind of sense to any Mormon who has encountered overt anti-Mormon sentiment, evangelical or otherwise. For how, exactly, is one supposed to engage fruitfully with those who would mock her family’s underwear and insist she belongs to a cult?

Correction: This post originally stated that the spiritual warfare campaign against Mormonism began at Fuller Theological Seminary. It also stated that Romney lost the Iowa caucuses to Huckabee by nearly 30 points. It was meant to indicate “among evangelicals.” RD regrets the error.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.