Will Mormonism Really Hurt Romney in Iowa?

Sunday night before the Iowa caucuses, the best prognosticators in the game were predicting a virtual dead heat between Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum, with momentum on Santorum’s side as he is expected to pick up Perry and Bachmann defectors.

Even with Romney’s stronger-than-expected closing push, media sources including the BBC have continued to focus on anti-Mormon sentiment among Iowa’s evangelical Christian voting bloc.

Which makes it easier for those of us out west in the Book-of-Mormon belt to imagine Iowa and its caucuses—a state our pioneer ancestors left and a state that rewarded Mike Huckabee’s sneering anti-Mormonism in 2008—awash in undercurrents of anti-Mormonism.

But that would be a mistake, no matter how Romney finishes. Here’s why.

First, we simply do not have good data on how Mormonism has impacted Romney’s fate thus far, and I have not seen a polling instrument that establishes anti-Mormonism as a definitive factor in Romney’s standing in Iowa. In fact, some data has suggested that Iowans’ comfort with Mormonism has actually increased slightly since the 2008 caucuses, while Romney’s favorability ratings generally declined. And it would be easier to isolate anti-Mormonism were Romney a life-long social conservative, or less robotic on the stump.

Second, it’s important to remember how caucus coverage distorts the fuller picture of faith-motivated political life in Iowa. For a little perspective, I spoke last week with Brian Beckstrom, a Lutheran (ELCA) campus pastor at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. In contrast to Randall Balmer’s RD piece on the religious right in Iowa, Beckstrom recently wrote that it’s wrong to assume “an aggressive evangelical form of Christianity as [Iowa’s] cultural norm.”

Mainline denominations are still important to Iowa civic life, Beckstrom observes, and interest in the caucuses among young people is “pretty low.” While it’s true that on social conservative issues Iowa can be a “polarized place,” small-town good manners rule everywhere except for caucus-related settings. “People know who they can talk to, but they don’t engage with people outside, because that would be considered impolite.”

As for anti-Mormonism, Beckstrom says, “I thought it would be more of an issue.” Rival candidates like Rick Perry may have tried to draw contrast by highlighting their Christian credentials, and Gingrich’s former political director threatened to mobilize evangelical antipathy towards “the cult of Mormon.” But suspicion towards Mormonism is most likely to materialize as a prop in a rival candidate’s rhetorical game, not as an actual feature of day-to-day conversation among Iowa Protestants.

In Davenport, Iowa, Pastor Clark Olson-Smith at All Saints Lutheran agrees: “I’ve never heard anyone bring up Romney’s Mormon-ness as an issue here. There are a few people who I could imagine bringing that up, but never in public.”

And the faith-motivated issues his younger congregants care about don’t map onto the traditional social conservatism. “We have a number of people who are really concerned with food and poverty issues,” says Olson-Smith. All Saints plays a significant role in a local food bank, but hunger isn’t on the caucus agenda. “Unfortunately, that kind of thing never gets talked about in political cycles and caucuses. We have a lot of people who feel like they’re not talking about what’s important to us.”

 

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