Beliefnet
Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

Either Mitt and his advisers are blowing smoke or they don’t understand the religious dynamics of the Republican Party. I’m guessing the latter.

In a piece in the Boston Globe a few days ago, Sasha Issenberg reports that looking toward 2012, the Romney camp has decided to forgo the 2008 strategy of trying to win over social conservatives, i.e. evangelicals.

“You’re not really going to alter your main message to accommodate this
tiny group,” said Carl Forti, who served as the campaign’s national
political director. “You’re going to acknowledge that there’s this small
group of people and move on.”

OK, let’s be charitable and assume that Forti is referring only to those GOP primary voters who say they absolutely wouldn’t vote for a Mormon. According to a 2006 Rasmussen survey, that’s over half of all evangelicals. The same year, a Pew survey found that four out of every 10 Republicans was an evangelical. So basically that “tiny group” represents 20 percent of GOP voters.

But it’s worse than that. Just because a lot of evangelicals allow as how they would vote for a Mormon doesn’t mean they will. And in 2008, when the choice came down to Romney and an evangelical–namely, Mike Huckabee–evangelical voters overwhelmingly favored Huckabee, and (as John Green and I have shown) cost Romney the nomination.

What Romney & Co. don’t seem to grasp is that their big mistake in 2008 was to try to appeal to evangelicals by pretending to be one of them. That was kind of like Messianic Jews (i.e. Jews for Jesus) trying to persuade Jews that they too are Jews. Ignoring religion altogether, which appears to be the current Romney strategy, may be better than what he did last time around. But with all those evangelical voters out there in GOP primary land, that alone isn’t going to cut it. He’s got to pick up the gauntlet, acknowledge the distinctiveness of his faith, and force the “social conservative” base of his party to confront their bigotry.

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