As Dr. Robert P. Jones predicted in last week’s “Figuring Faith,” this weekend’s annual Values Voter Summit was a testing ground for Mitt Romney, the GOP front-runner and a devout Mormon. While introducing Rick Perry, prominent evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress slammed Romney by asking his audience, “Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or one who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?” For Jeffress, who has repeatedly described Mormonism as a cult, the implication was clear: Romney was not a Christian, therefore he should not be the GOP nominee. Perry later refused Romney’s request to disavow Jeffress.
And it turns out that Jeffress does have some company within the broader evangelical community on this issue. A recent PRRI survey found that a majority (57%) of white evangelicals report that they do not consider the Mormon faith to be a Christian religion.
Romney sidestepped the issue by choosing not to tackle Jeffress’ comments head-on. Instead, in his speech to the VVS audience, he criticized the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer for having questioned Mormonism’s connection to Christianity. Jon Huntsman, the other Mormon candidate for the GOP nomination, was more frank. In an interview with CNN, he said Jeffress was a “moron.”
Spicy remarks from Huntsman aside, the subsequent outpouring of support for Romney led some to question whether Jeffress had actually helped Romney. By so publicly attacking Romney’s faith, Jeffress provided an opening for Romney to point to shared values between Mormons and white evangelicals. In fact, as a new research note from PRRI shows, the political views of Mormons and white evangelicals are strikingly similar across a number of important social issues.
Moreover, if other evangelical leaders come out in support of Romney, the widespread belief that Mormonism is not a Christian religion may not undermine his candidacy. Richard Land, the head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission at the Southern Baptist Convention, said Mormonism was similar to a “fourth Abrahamic faith.” According to him, “[Mormonism] is just not Christianity. It’s another religion, like Islam.” Nevertheless, he said that he believes that Romney’s religion is “only an issue in his personal and family life.” Pat Robertson took a different tack, saying that he believed Romney was an “outstanding Christian,” but stopping short of endorsing him.
Regardless of whether it should, it is likely that Romney’s faith will continue to be a hot-button issue as the Republican primary campaign moves forward. But it’s also entirely possible that Romney’s greatest challenge will be convincing voters that he is sufficiently conservative. For white evangelicals, at least, it may be enough to show that Romney’s faith leads him to the same place.