A Bigger Tent

Why religious conservatives are ready for a Mormon president.

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Polls may show Rudy Giuliani in the lead for the Republican nomination in 2008. John McCain may appear to have the political clout to serve as President Bush’s anointed successor. But it is Gov. Mitt Romney, the Mormon from Massachusetts, who has captured the imagination of the religious right.

It’s counterintuitive, to say the least, for social conservatives to treat a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a fitting successor to George W. Bush. The president is an evangelical Protestant, as is the bulk of the religious right. And conventional wisdom holds that evangelicals are a pretty judgmental bunch. They don’t like homosexuals. They’ll tolerate Jews, but only because they think Israel is hastening the Second Coming of Christ. Their disputes about Catholicism center on whether the pope is best described as the Antichrist or the Whore of Babylon. And Mormons? Well, the last thing you’d expect evangelicals to do is support a candidate whose religion many of them consider to be a polygamous cult with practices and beliefs that derive from Freemasonry, not the New Testament.

Yet this is precisely what’s happening. Which goes to show how broad-based the religious right has become, inviting participation and support by culturally alienated members of nearly any faith. During the last 25 years, the religious right has undergone an ecumenical transformation.

Back in the late 1970s, when Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority defined the movement, it was insular and proudly prejudiced—its leadership more inclined to gush about the glories of being born-again in Christ than to engage in theological or political debates with non-evangelicals. Falwell and Pat Robertson still regularly grab headlines with their ignorant inanities. But today’s conservative evangelicals are on the whole much more politically and intellectually sophisticated than those of previous generations. They have come to understand that their only hope of turning back the spread of secular liberalism is to work together with social conservatives in other religious communities.

The man who’s done more than anyone else to foster political cooperation among historically antagonistic religious groups is Richard John Neuhaus. A prominent Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism in 1990 and was ordained as a priest the following year, Neuhaus has long believed that the political viability of the religious right depends on forming an electoral alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelicals. He has pushed the proposition in a series of books over the last 20 years, as well as in the pages of his monthly magazine, First Things.

In 1994, Neuhaus persuaded several of his colleagues on the religious right to produce a historic declaration, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” It sets out an ambitious agenda. The authors proclaimed that the United States was being “laid waste by relativism” and “nihilism” because the country had begun to reject the Christian faith that had always sustained American democracy. The biggest problem facing the nation, Neuhaus and his fellow conservatives insisted, was the “separation of religion from public life.” This was leading to a “culture of death,” including abortion, euthanasia, and “population control,” a euphemism for contraception.

To reverse this moral collapse, the document continued, pious Christians needed to outlaw abortion. They needed to empower the country’s public schools to teach “chastity” and inculcate a “readiness for marriage, parenthood, and family.” Above all, these Christians needed to reach positions of political power so that they could act out of their conviction that our country is “a nation under judgment, mercy, and providential care of the Lord of the nations to whom we alone render unqualified allegiance.”

This interreligious litany nicely summarizes the agenda of today’s religious right. When the document first appeared, some evangelicals denounced it, drawing on deep wellsprings of anti-Catholic animus. (Author Dave Hunt went so far as to call it “the most devastating blow against the Gospel in at least one thousand years.”) But such criticism was the exception, and “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” set the stage for many more efforts at uniting right-wing factions from nearly every major religious denomination in America.

These efforts began to pay off when Texas Gov. George W. Bush contacted Neuhaus in the spring of 1998, inviting him to Austin for a meeting to discuss the agenda of the religious right. Bush wanted Neuhaus to know that he hoped to earn the support of traditionalist Christians of every stripe when he ran for president in 2000. Over the next several months, Neuhaus tutored the governor on Catholic social teaching, which had become the lingua franca of the religious right. Then Bush and his political adviser Karl Rove hired speechwriter Michael Gerson, an evangelical profoundly influenced by Neuhaus. This influence could be detected in Bush’s early stump speech, which was permeated with pro-life concepts and other rhetoric straight out of papal encyclicals. For years, Neuhaus championed “subsidiarity”—the idea that social problems are best solved by churches and religious charities. Here lie the seeds of compassionate conservatism and Bush’s faith-based initiatives. When the evangelical pastor down the street opens his check from Washington, he has Neuhaus and the Vatican to thank for it.

We’re all familiar with Bush’s acts of fealty to the social-conservative base of his party—the nomination of pro-life judges, the Terri Schiavo intervention, the attempt to ban same-sex marriage, the veto of funding for stem-cell research. What is far less widely understood is what these numerous gestures of loyalty to causes near and dear to the Catholic Church tell us about how ecumenical the religious right has become.

But has the social-conservative movement become broad enough to accept a Mormon as its leader? That remains an open question. Latter-day Saints have toiled side by side with Catholics and evangelicals on various issues during the last two decades. But anti-Mormon prejudice remains widespread in both communities. Even Neuhaus, Mr. Ecumenical himself, has effectively excommunicated Mormons from the religious right by pronouncing that they are not Christians. And James Dobson of Focus on the Family no doubt spoke for many older evangelicals when he recently denied that “conservative Christians in large numbers will vote for a Mormon.”

And yet Mitt Romney’s undeclared candidacy has so far managed to inspire a remarkable degree of enthusiasm among right-wing Christians. Conservative Catholics have a proven track record of voting for non-Catholic candidates who support the issues they care about. Among evangelicals, some clearly admire the stands Romney has taken against gay marriage, abortion, and stem-cell research in liberal Massachusetts and hope that he’ll come to be seen as a viable alternative to McCain and Giuliani, both of whom fall to Romney’s left on social issues. Even Falwell has admitted that it’s the issues that will matter in the next presidential contest: “If he’s pro-life, pro-family, I don’t think he’ll have any trouble getting the support of evangelical Christians,” he told the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., earlier this year. Romney has good reason to hope that, faced with the prospect of a pro-choice Republican nominee, conservative believers will adopt the pragmatic view of evangelical blogger Charles Mitchell: “The 2008 election is for president, not for pastor.”