All the Candidates’ Religion Problems

Mid-evening yesterday, as the obvious polls poured in (Newt Gingrich winning Georgia, Mitt Romney winning Vermont), a strange delirium seized professional election returns watchers. First there was that surreal CNN webcam video of Sarah Palin, offering up non-prognostications about her party’s upcoming convention and her own visions for 2016; then there was Nate Silver seeing no clear path to a Romney victory in Ohio. Could Rick Santorum really win Ohio? What would it mean? While waiting for election boards in urban centers to get their ballots counted, Twitter devolved to the important questions: can Romney eat Chicken Marsala without violating the LDS ban on alcohol? (Our own Joanna Brooks says it’s Mormon-kosher because the alcohol cooks off.) Or was it Chicken Masala that Tagg whipped up for his parents?

Another favorite topic: Santorum isn’t getting a majority of the Catholic vote; Romney, the Mormon, is. That, though, isn’t the real news, because Catholic voters, even Republican Catholic voters, are hardly monolithic. The real story is that Santorum’s brand of uber-conservative Catholicism is winning over evangelicals, but that that’s not enough to win him the nomination.

As I’ve noted previously, when it comes to the alleged “war on religion,” evangelicals are more amenable to waging it than Catholics are, even though the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offered up the battle commanders. And while it’s Catholic teaching that prohibits the use of contraception, evangelicals are more opposed to the contraception coverage requirement than Catholics are:

The evangelicals are more Roman than American Catholics.

In the Pew poll, 68% of white evangelicals said that religiously-affiliated institutions should be given an exemption from the rule, while only 55% of Catholics did. Only 22% of evangelicals believe that religiously-affiliated institutions should be required to provide the coverage like other employers; 39% of Catholics thought so.

Among Catholics, too, there are splits between the frequent mass-attenders and the infrequent ones: 63% who attend weekly thought the religious institutions should get the exemption, while only 48% of those attending less weekly thought so. Still, by five percentage points, white evangelicals favor the exemption more than even Catholics who attend mass weekly.

Similarly, Santorum is more popular among evangelicals than with his fellow Catholics, who seem to favor Romney. Of course evangelicals are more conservative than Catholics overall; Santorum’s brand of Catholicism may indeed be a turn-off to fellow Catholics while evangelicals admire its ideological purity.

In Ohio last night, where Catholics made up 33% of the electorate, Santorum won 30% of them; Romney won 43%. Evangelicals made up 47% of the electorate, Santorum won 47% of them to Romney’s 31%. This result is similar to other recent primaries where Santorum a ran tight race with Romney, like Michigan, and is even more exaggerated in states he lost badly, like Arizona:

Rick Santorum, whose loyalty to all things medieval is unflagging, couldn’t eke out a victory in Michigan last night. That’s due, in part, to his inability to capture as much of the Catholic vote as Mitt Romney did. According to exit polls, 39% of the Michigan electorate was evangelical, and Santorum won 51% of them. Thirty percent of the electorate was Catholic, and Santorum was only able to capture 42% of them, to Romney’s 44%. The evangelicals liked Santorum more than his fellow Catholics did, and his fellow Catholics liked Romney more than they liked him. In Arizona, though, Santorum couldn’t even win the evangelicals. There, 42% of the voters were evangelical, and Santorum could only attract 37% of them to Romney’s 55%. (Arizona evangelicals probably know a lot more Mormons than evangelicals in other parts of the country.) Just 17% of Arizona voters were Catholic. Romney won 44% of them, Santorum 34%. Are we all Catholic now, as Mike Huckabee (Bapticostal) and Glenn Beck (Mormon) insist? By their test, not even the Catholics are.

Arizona, I think, is the only state where Romney has broken out of winning about a third of the evangelical vote in a state with a sizeable evangelical showing at the polls. It seems that this is his stumbling block to decisive victories in key states like Ohio. I don’t think this is all attributable to anti-Mormon bias; it’s in part attributable to a distaste for Romney the flip-flopper, Romney the imperfect representative of the Christian nation mythology and the anti-secularist, “biblical” worldview.

Last night on MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell speculated that if Santorum did win the nomination (which looks unlikely, if not impossible, at this point) it would finally reveal the GOP as a religiously extremist party, forcing it to moderate itself. That view, I think, represents the perspective of someone who thinks that’s the way things should rationally be in a democracy, but who doesn’t understand either the political strategy of the religious right (to “raise up” committed Christians to run for office, while shaping their “Christian worldview” from a very young age) or what compels its relentlessness (a belief they are evangelizing a sinful nation to repent—or else). Santorum may be a flawed, embarrassing representative, with his inability to think of a more presidential way of expressing disagreement than saying something makes him want to throw up. But he did not come out of nowhere, and nor will the next candidate to generate endless listicles of his or her “craziest” statements. Romney’s problem, although he may be overcoming it with the sheer force of money and organizing, is that he can’t decisively lock down this essential part of the Republican base.

Remember the incredulity about the emergence of someone with Michele Bachmann’s worldview on the national stage? The endurance of a candidate like Santorum—Catholic or not, running as the anti-Romney or not—proves that four, eight, twelve years from now, surprise is for those who are not paying attention.