Mitt Romney: Evangelical warrior

His Israel comments weren't simply gaffes: They were part of his ongoing campaign to win over the religious right

Published August 3, 2012 7:40PM (EDT)

Mitt Romney’s explanation this week about his “culture” comments in Jerusalem — in an Op-Ed in National Review — only adds to the evidence that the presumptive Republican nominee is feeling the pressure, as has every GOP nominee since Reagan, of the mighty evangelical get-out-the-vote apparatus.

For all the worry that Romney’s Mormonism informs his politics and will shape his policymaking, Romney’s political career has been nothing if not a model of catering to whatever political constituency is required to get you elected. In Massachusetts, that meant support for healthcare reform, gay marriage and abortion rights. In 2012, Romney no doubt hears Ralph Reed buzzing in his ear that mobilizing evangelicals to the polls is the key to victory.

Rather than walk back his much-criticized claim that Israeli culture is superior to Palestinian culture, Romney dug in deeper, attributing American freedom to being “endowed by our Creator with the freedom to pursue happiness.” (Get it? God likes certain people more than others.) Like the U.S., he added, “the state of Israel has a culture that is based upon individual freedom and the rule of law.” The Palestinians, on the other hand, “deserve to enjoy the blessings of a culture of freedom and opportunity,” but notably Romney didn’t argue that God had endowed them with freedom to enjoy such blessings.

While some in Mormon leadership have asserted that the Constitution is divinely inspired, my colleague, the Mormon writer Joanna Brooks, points out that it’s “not a point of doctrine.” Indeed the divine inspiration for the Declaration of Independence and Constitution Romney invokes is doctrine you’d hear at any religious right gathering that extols the superiority of the Christian nation.

Still, though, despite the deep theological divide fueled by the prevalent evangelical characterization of Mormonism as a cult, the religious right has long made common cause with conservative Mormon activists — most recently, Glenn Beck, and W. Cleon Skousen, whose legacy Beck revitalized.

But while Romney has felt obliged to acknowledge Skousen, it’s notably been to an evangelical, not Mormon, audience. The renewed popularity of Skousen’s writings, particularly “The 5,000 Year Leap,” says more about the right’s continuing affinity for conspiratorial anti-communism — including among Mormons, but also among conservatives of other faiths — than Romney’s commitment to a uniquely Mormon view of the Constitution.

To compete in the obligatory “I’m-a-person-of-deep-faith” beauty contest, Romney has expressed his commitment to the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In his 2007 speech on religion, he pledged his loyalty to his faith and its beliefs. But in his 2012 run, on a host of issues, after his fealty to the conservative cause has been repeatedly questioned, he’s aligned himself with the Christian right.

That’s not to say the LDS church and religious right aren’t aligned on political issues, notably opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion — which happen to be the very two issues on which Romney has faced suspicion from the religious right, because of his flip-flops on both. Christian right radio host and provocateur Bryan Fischer famously has said Romney was “not Mormon enough.” When Fischer, who has relentlessly questioned Romney’s anti-gay bona fides, claimed credit for forcing Richard Grenell out of the Romney campaign, Romney let this claim to power and influence stand unchallenged.

On the question of Israel-Palestine, while Mormons historically, especially during the Cold War, have been reflexively pro-Israel, owing to the role of Israel and the Jews in end-times prophecy, that position has undergone a “mellowing,” according to Daniel C. Peterson, professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic in the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University. Peterson told me in an interview this week that — unlike conservative evangelical orthodoxy — Mormons have long taught that Muslims “are too, from our point of view, theologically descendants of Abraham.” Compare that to evangelicals like John Hagee, probably the country’s most visible and politically influential Christian Zionist and close ally of the Israeli right, who claims “those who live by the Qu’ran have a scriptural mandate to kill Christians and Jews,” and reminds his followers: “Never forget this is a theological war!”

Even before his trip to Israel, at a presidential debate during the primary in January, Romney seemed to forget what his church has to say about Palestinians and Islam in general. Palestinian-American audience member Abraham Hassan (who is Christian) asked, “How would a Republican administration help bring peace to Palestine and Israel when most candidates barely recognize the existence of Palestine or its people?” Romney blamed the Palestinians exclusively for the intractability of the conflict, refused to acknowledge the occupation, and reduced the conflict to monolithic good vs. evil: “The Israelis would be happy to have a two-state solution. It's the Palestinians who don't want a two-state solution. They want to eliminate the state of Israel.” (After Romney’s Israel visit, the nationalist deputy speaker of the Knesset Danny Danon, who is adamantly opposed to a two-state solution, called Romney a “true friend” of Israel.)

Although Romney himself has been a target of religious right bigotry, he’s avoided taking a position on Islamophobia in the United States. He’s undoubtedly noticed that Michele Bachmann fundraised mightily after her witch hunt of Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Romney, unlike fellow Republicans like John McCain and Ed Rollins, has stayed silent on the matter.

Romney’s entire approach to religious freedom has evolved from a position of promoting it for religious minorities to adopting the religious right’s claim that secularists threaten the Christian nation. During an October 2011 debate, when Romney was under attack from some evangelical figures over his own faith, he argued that “the founders of this country went to great length to make sure — and even put it in the Constitution — that we would not choose people who represent us in government based upon their religion, that this would be a nation that recognized and respected other faiths, where there's a plurality of faiths, where there was tolerance for other people and faiths. That's bedrock principle.” By January — at the same debate at which he dismissed the question from Republican voter Abraham Hassan — Romney had hired former Liberty University debate coach Brent O’Donnell, and argued, “Of course, ours is a nation which is based upon Judeo-Christian values and ethics.”

The LDS church teaches that contraception use is a matter to be decided by a (married) couple. What’s more, the LDS church has not weighed in on the “religious freedom” wars being waged by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, other Catholic groups and their evangelical allies. (Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, also a Mormon, has speculated that the church might be shying away from taking a position after criticism over its involvement in supporting California’s Proposition 8.)

But under pressure, Romney has weighed in. He’s now on the religious right’s side. In Romney-esque fashion, though, his view evolved from supporting a comparable contraception coverage requirement in Massachusetts to saying “the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife, I’m not going there” to supporting Republican legislative efforts to grant private, secular employers the right to refuse to cover any medical procedure or pharmaceutical product based on “religious conscience” objections.

To satisfy the base, he wrote in February that President Obama was trying to “impose a secular vision on Americans who believe that they should not have their religious freedom taken away.” Even though there is a long history of anti-Mormon bigotry and even violence in the United States (not to mention anti-Catholic bigotry and violence), he insisted that the contraception mandate is “the most serious assault” on religious freedom “in generations.”

Perhaps Romney’s most lavish pander to the religious right was at a campaign stop in Wisconsin in April, where he asserted, “We are now all Catholics. Those of us who are people of faith recognize this is — an attack on one religion is an attack on all religion.” Except when that religion isn’t one with the stamp of approval of the Christian right.

By Sarah Posner

Sarah Posner is the senior editor of Religion Dispatches, where she writes about politics. She is also the author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters" (PoliPoint Press, 2008).

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2012 Elections Israel Mitt Romney Mormon Church Religious Right