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It's the agenda, stupid

Theological differences won't keep religious voters from backing a candidate they like.

October 08, 2006|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

IN A RADIO INTERVIEW last week, prominent evangelical activist James Dobson said that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's Mormon faith "could pose a serious obstacle" if he decided to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. Dobson said he thought that conservative Christians wouldn't feel comfortable casting a ballot for a Mormon. Chances are, he's wrong.

Sure, plenty of evangelical Protestants refuse to consider Mormonism a branch of Christianity. A Pentecostal missionary recently referred to the heavily Mormon state of Utah as the "last frontier" for Christian proselytizing in the United States.

While Protestants and Catholics accept two books of Scripture, Mormons have three. Mormons believe that church founder Joseph Smith was a prophet of God; other Christians don't consider him anything except the founder of, at best, an unusual sect. Perhaps most troubling to many evangelicals, Mormons believe that the Almighty has a physical body. In other words, theologically speaking, Mormonism is much further away from Christian evangelicalism than, say, Catholicism or any mainline Protestant denomination.

But when it comes to American politics, it seems clear that cultural affinity and a shared political agenda can trump theology. Evangelical activists, for instance, have joined forces with conservative Jews and Tibetan Buddhists on human rights issues such as sex trafficking and North Korean gulags.

Since the earliest days of their religion in the early 19th century, when they were openly persecuted, Mormons have cultivated both their distinctiveness and a greater acceptance by society at large. Indeed, the church's decision to ban polygamy in the late 19th century was tied to its desire to have the Utah Territory accepted as a state. Once keen on establishing their own Zion in the West, over time Mormons became increasingly eager to integrate.

By the late 20th century, Mormons had developed a reputation for being as American as apple pie, even if their beliefs were way out of the mainstream. They also became loyal Republicans. As recently as this summer, Utah voters -- two-thirds of whom are Mormon -- gave President Bush the highest job-approval rating of any state.

Joseph Cannon, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, calls Mormons the African Americans of the GOP because about 70% vote Republican. He says their affinity for Bush and his party derives from shared values. Of course, the same could be said about evangelicals, who at 40% make up the single biggest demographic bloc in the Republican coalition.

The conservative "values" agenda -- anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, a shared vision of what constitutes America's moral fiber -- that connects each group to the GOP also links them to each other, at least politically.

"Some evangelicals may think that Mormons are going to hell," says Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, "but at the same time, they might think that it wouldn't be too bad to have one in elected office."

In other words, for all the talk of faith being central to the political behavior of religious conservatives, it can take a back seat to their social and political agendas.

Evangelicals are probably the least ecumenical of the major Christian groups in the county. They believe in evangelization, bringing the Gospel to new peoples, and in the inerrancy of Scripture. They are highly invested in their version of religious truth and less willing to find theological compromise with other denominations and religions.

It was the secularism of the late 1960s and early 1970s that pushed the once otherworldly evangelicals into the political arena. Feeling put upon by modernity, evangelical activism was fueled by indignation and the belief that they received little respect in an increasingly plural nation.

But the political and cultural successes of recent years, and their unprecedented influence on the Bush administration, have begun to change that equation. "It's harder to keep seeing yourself as an embattled minority when, in fact, your values are becoming increasingly accepted," says Baylor University religion scholar Rodney Stark. "Fifteen years ago, nobody made Hollywood movies to appeal to evangelical Christians. Things have changed."

And while some overly confident evangelical activists may feel their numbers mean they don't need to build bridges with those with whom they disagree, a growing number of evangelicals have begun to feel what Stark calls a "confidence and calmness." Now that their sense of exclusion has diminished, they are more willing to find common cause with non-evangelicals.

Christian evangelicals may think Mormons are dead wrong on fundamental issues of faith, but they share a conservative social vision. Despite Dobson's true-believer (and anti-Mormon) stance, U.S. politics will no doubt -- in its time-honored way -- once again make strange bedfellows. And Romney, who has called himself an "evangelical Mormon," could reap the benefits.

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