In 2008 we declared the meme “Romney, a Mormon” that appeared in the press over and over and over again as one of the most damaging to Mitt Romney. That meme did not die this campaign – I read the phrase or variations thereof a lot. I beginning to think that despite the protestations that we did not hear about Mormonism is a bit of canard. Consider this story:
A study, released Friday by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, found that while 35 percent of the religion-related stories focused on Romney, Obama’s coverage was at 17 percent.
Romney’s religion-related coverage often raised questions about how his faith would be received by voters, and religion stories on Obama often dealt with incidents in which his Christian faith was challenged, including rumors that he is a Muslim, the study found.
The analysis noted that media’s religion coverage peaked during the primaries, when several Republican candidates – including Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum – spoke about their Christian beliefs, fueling speculation about whether white evangelical Protestants would withhold support from Romney because of his Mormon faith.
The story does not give us raw data, nor link to it, but here is the press release from Pew which includes this stunner of a paragraph:
By the end of the campaign, about two-thirds of U.S. adults (65%) were aware that Romney is a Mormon. But the vast majority of Americans (82%) said they had learned “not very much” or “nothing at all” about the Mormon religion, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted shortly after the election.
So, let’s build a picture here. The methodology link in the Pew release seems not to work, so I cannot find out what is an is not a “religion” story, but I think I can be fairly certain in asserting that “Romney, a Mormon” in a story covering some other aspect of the campaign does not qualify. So, what do we know for sure?
- Romney won the primary, but still had a base problem – rooted, it seems increasingly evident, in religion.
- Romney had a huge problem amongst the “spiritual but not religious” and the areligious crowd.
- Most people knew Romney’s faith identity, and the press drove it home whenever possible, but to those same most that faith remained a mystery.
- Obama played “Not one of us.“
- Despite early analysis, it was not the Latino vote that cost Romney the election.
The picture is growing conclusive that Romney’s faith was an important, if unspoken, factor in the election. Again, I think we can liken it to the mid-to late 70′s in terms of race relations. At that point discussion of race in electoral politics had been successfully rendered politically incorrect, but racial bias still existed and was strong. So, it was not talked about, but it did play.
Where we are really missing data now is what effect was most significant, the ambivalence among the base or the rejection of Romney by the religiously unaffiliated? Given that we are in the “don’t talk about it” phase, I am not sure we will ever get that data becasue poll responses cannot be relied upon. Will history tell us the answer to that question?
Well, there are no Mormon candidates on the immediate horizon. Evangelicals appear to be dying:
I believe the cultural backlash against evangelical Christianity has less to do with our views — many observant Muslims and Jews, for example, also view homosexual sex as wrong, while Catholics have been at the vanguard of the movement to protect the lives of the unborn — and more to do with our posture. The Scripture calls us “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), but American evangelicals have not acted with the humility and homesickness of aliens. The proper response to our sexualized and hedonistic culture is not to chastise, but to “conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).
I could go on about that at length, but will let it speak for itself for now. We may be back.
However, while Evangelicals are fading left wing opposition to religion generally is increasing, so even if a future Republican Mormon manages to “overcome” it would become apparent that the bigger problem was ambivalence in the base. In the end, does it really matter though. In an election this close, it only takes a small effect to change the outcome. That is one of the things I don’t like about the Pew release. It insists religion was not a big deal this time.
However, in an election decided by less than 500,000 votes in four states, little deals are very big deals indeed. It seems religion mattered more in this election than anyone wants to admit.