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Week of 12.7.07

Did Romney Win Over Skeptics?

Dan Gilgoff NOW asked Dan Gilgoff, politics editor of BeliefNet, about Mitt Romney's so-called "Mormon problem" and how his speech on faith and politics played among Republican voters. To read more of Gilgoff's insights, visit God-o-Meter, his blog on religion in the presidential race.

To watch Romney's speech, click here. To read a transcript, click here.

NOW: Did Mitt Romney succeed in allaying concerns about his faith? How?

DANIEL GILGOFF: Romney didn't try to allay concerns about his religion as much as make a case that concerns about his religion are out of bounds and have no place in America's tradition of religious pluralism and tolerance. It probably worked to some extent, but whether it worked enough to convince skeptical Christians who look to be vital to his winning the Republican nomination is another question. Time will tell.

NOW: How do you think evangelicals who are especially distrustful of the Mormon religion will react to the speech?

DG: Some of them will appreciate that Romney came out and said—or at least strongly insinuated—that Mormonism is distinct from traditional Christianity:
"My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance."
There had previously been some wariness among evangelicals—and some Mormons, too—that Romney had been trying to pass himself off as a traditional Christian. He'd declined to talk about the differences in the Mormon and evangelical Christian traditions and invoked evangelical-sounding lines like "Christ is my personal savior." Today, by contrast, he engaged in a bit of "Mormon talk" by refusing to disavow or distance himself from his faith. Ironically, a line like that will probably go over well with evangelicals, many of whom feel that religion is under attack by secular forces.

NOW: Was Romney's decision to speak now a good idea? Was it even necessary?

DG: His campaign didn't seem to think so. His advisors had resolved to put this speech off at least until next year—and some argued that a "religion speech" would only cause trouble—but Romney appears to have overruled them. With onetime Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee rising so furiously in the polls over the last few weeks, and on the backs of the same Christian conservatives that Romney is banking on to win the nomination, Romney might not have had a choice. Ignoring his so-called Mormon problem might have been more risky than giving a speech. Upcoming polls should shed some light on this question.

NOW: Was there anything Romney didn't say but should have to reassure voters worried about his religion?

DG: Romney avoided discussion of his religious beliefs in his speech. But those who are really worried about his religion probably wouldn't be placated by a discussion of basic Mormon beliefs anyway.

NOW: Is America "ready" to elect a Mormon president or vice president?

DG: Polls suggest that America might not be, with one in four Americans owning up to misgivings about voting for a Mormon president. Among Republican evangelicals, the proportion who feel that way is more than one in three. Polls show that prejudice against African American, Jewish, and Catholic candidates has declined precipitously over the last few decades, but it has remained steady and perhaps even increased slightly for Mormon candidates.

NOW: How do issues related to faith work for or against front-runners Hillary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani?

DG: Rudy Giuliani's liberal stances on social issues like abortion and gay rights make him a difficult sell in the GOP's religious conservative base. But with the fight against Islamic radicalism becoming something like a values issue among evangelicals, Giuliani might pick up a surprising amount of evangelical support. Though it's well-documented that Hillary Clinton has long been a committed and active Methodist, she is seen as the least religious candidate in the presidential race. Still, when Clinton appeared at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church last week for a conference on global AIDS, she was greeted with a standing ovation. And unlike John Kerry in 2004, Clinton is doing serious organizing work in religious communities. One of her campaign's first hires was a Southern evangelical to lead her religious outreach effort. Rudy Giuliani isn't trying half as hard to reach religious voters.

NOW: How does Mike Huckabee's faith play a role in his campaign? Will it work to his advantage?

DG: Without his bona fides in the evangelical world—Huckabee is an ordained Baptist minister and was a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention—his current surge in the polls would be simply inconceivable, given that he is running a campaign on a shoestring. It will work to his advantage in the Republican Party, since half of Iowa Republican caucus goers are evangelicals. The question is whether it will be enough of an advantage to overcome Huckabee's major disadvantages, including low name recognition, anemic fundraising, and celebrity opponents like Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson.

NOW: How much does faith play a role in this election compared to past elections?

DG: It seems like with each passing election of late, faith is playing a bigger role. Part of that is because, after 2004, the Democrats launched a sustained campaign to win back many of the religious voters who'd been responsible for the GOP's historic gains that year, when Republicans won the White House and picked up seats in Congress. That Democratic campaign is still going strong, so now the role of faith looms large on both presidential tickets, not just the GOP's.

NOW: How would you assess the current political strength of the Religious Right? Do you think they would "sit out" an election if the Republican candidate turns out to be Rudolph Giuliani?

DG: Some of the religious right would sit out the 2008 general election if Rudy Giuliani was the Republican nominee, but most rank-and-file evangelicals would not. In the very close presidential contests we've been having recently, though, a very slight drop in evangelical turnout could sink Giuliani's general election chances.

NOW: From your perspective, how does America, on average, view the current separation of church and state? Do Americans feel one has too much influence over the other?

DG: I haven't seen recent polls on this question, but USA Today recently reported on a poll that found most Americans think the Constitution establishes a Christian Nation and that public school teaches ought to be permitted to lead prayers, so I think most Americans are quite skeptical about there being a high wall of separation between church and state.