by

So How Will Mitt Romney Play the Religion Card?

That deafening, churning, leather-on-wood sound you just heard is the sound of the entire Romney campaign “pivoting to the general,” as the pundits like to say.

In the coming months, Mitt and his Faith and Values team will need to figure out how to draw lucrative religious voting blocs to the Republican side of the ledger. Faith-based politicking is always a complicated affair, and for these reasons I offer a few hopefully helpful suggestions on how the Romney team ought to proceed:

Bait the secularists (if you must): Secular-bashing is among the easiest, and most intellectually dishonest, forms of Faith and Values politicking out there. Easy, because there is widespread confusion as to what “secularism” means. The dreaded “ism” can conveniently stand in for anything a politician loathes: godlessness, gang violence, pornography–it’s all good. Or, bad as the case may be.

It is intellectually dishonest because it fails to identify the benefits of secular policies or try to understand why after two centuries American democracy settled–temporarily, it increasingly seems–on this particular form of governance.

Romney already signaled his willingness to strawman secularism in his 2007 “Faith in America” speech. Until secularism gets its acts together (a project to which my forthcoming book is devoted), secular-bashing will remain an effective, if unoriginal and unfortunate, campaign strategy.

Associate Obama with “the religion of secularism“: The trailblazer here is Newt Gingrich who has written a book–though not a very convincing one–decrying Obama’s “secular-socialist” machine. Back in February Romney experimented with this technology. He did so again in early April where he lamented Obama’s “war on religion” and his establishment of a religion “known as secularism.”

It’s a plausible ploy, but that’s not because Obama is the high priest of the Secular Church. On the contrary, speak to secular activists and they will express a seething frustration with the administration about things like the President’s Office of Faith-based Initiatives and Neighborhood Partnerships, among other indiscretions.

Rather, the plausibility of equating Obama with secularism lies in the aforementioned malleability of the term “secularism.”  Too, the Democratic party was virtually addicted to secularism for decades (an addiction, incidentally, which Obama and his Awesome Blue State God labored to cure).

Obama is no friend of secularism, at least not separationist secularism. Still, if I were Romney’s team I would continue to give this talking point a spin; let Obama try to re-define his position on the ever unpopular policy of secularism. See if he inadvertently stumbles as he tries to disentangle his own party from the S word.

Forget about those Evangelicals who will never give you a fair shake: Lambasting secularism, fun as it may be, is simply not going to be enough. Romney needs to give Evangelicals, a quarter of the American electorate, a reason to vote for him.

In 2008 he tried running as an “Evangelical Mormon.” The concept was clever, but it was never implemented in a way that yielded results. In order for Romney to energize this lucrative voting bloc he is first going to have to concede that for a certain theological minority of Evangelicals he is never going to be acceptable. He needs to stop worrying about them. If it’s any consolation they won’t be voting for Obama either.

And campaign hard among the Evangelicals who will:  The big story, however, is that many, probably most, American Evangelicals are willing to look beyond theological differences and consider voting for a Mormon candidate. It is here that Romney’s team will need to distinguish Faith and Values from religion.

A recent Politico story raised the possibility that the GOP wants Romney to “own his Mormonism.” I agree, but he has to own it in his own way. It would be a mistake for the campaign to draw attention to the doctrines and rituals of the LDS Church. They will strike others as peculiar. I stress this not because they are peculiar in and of themselves. Rather, they are perceived as peculiar because as John Locke reminded us, “everyone is orthodox to himself.”

Romney needs to attract Evangelicals by focusing not on his religion, but on his values. Let him not linger on Mormon teachings about baptism, but on the immensely large role the Church plays in his life. Let Romney’s intense commitment to faith come to the fore. It is here that many Evangelicals will likely see glaring similarities.

In a dust-up with a Ron Paul supporter recently Romney responded “we’re just not going to have a discussion about religion.” Aside, from the defensiveness in his tone, this was the correct answer. Romney should not spend time talking about his religion’s doctrines. It’s not what he believes; it’s how he lives his beliefs.

Stress Romney’s character: In his personal life Romney is a high character fellow; no adultery, drug abuse, corruption. No skeletons in the closet, not even a tibia. Against almost any other candidate this would be a huge selling point, but Obama has little personal baggage either.

Without drawing invidious comparison, then, it might be worthwhile to stress the large family, the absence of personal vice, the complete lack of scandal. In short, character is a winner for Romney (though not as much a winner as it could be against any one other than Obama).

Reach out to conservative African-Americans in swing states: One trouble spot for Romney consists of his Church’s now abrogated teachings on ordination of black clergy and interracial marriage. It is safe to say that most African-American voters will vote for Obama in large numbers. Yet some studies indicate that the Bush 2004 campaign prevailed in Ohio precisely because of inroads it made among black religious conservatives. Explicitly distancing himself from former LDS teachings here is both morally and tactically correct.

A Catholic Veep?: If Romney does decide to use his selection of a running mate to shore up his numbers among transnational religious constituencies, then  there will be much to be gained by turning to a Catholic. And if he could identify a conservative Latino/a Catholic all the better to help him with a demographic where his numbers are south of disastrous.

In any case, Catholic outreach may be the most single important task confronting his F and V operation. As we have noted again,   these voters comprise the largest single voting group in the country and they are fiercely independent.

Xposted at “On Faith,” Washingtonpost.com

Image: Robert Huffstutter at flickr.com

Return to Top