Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney attends graduation ceremonies as the scheduled commencement speaker at Liberty University on May 12, 2012 in Lynchburg, Virginia. Liberty University is one of the country’s largest Christian colleges. Photo by Jared Soares/ Getty Images.
Updated 6:40 p.m. ET | Even if the polls don’t show it, Mitt Romney is making gains with an electorate that has thus far eluded the presumptive GOP nominee in his push towards the general election: Christian conservatives.
The outreach by a few members of the Romney campaign team is not exactly setting the evangelical world on fire, but the effort has been noticed.
“If you’re talking about a six-speed transmission, I think it’s gone from first to third,” David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network said of the campaign’s effort. Brody spoke with Judy Woodruff in an interview that will air on Tuesday’s NewsHour. Tune in here at 6 p.m. EST.
Romney faces a double-indemnity with evangelicals. The former Massachusetts governor’s Mormon faith and inconsistent record on social issues are hard to reconcile for some faith-based voters.
A recent survey of the national Mormon population by Pew Research found 97 percent of Mormons identified themselves as Christians, but only half of the general population agree with that characterization. Also, thanks to popular television shows like HBO’s “Big Love” and TLC’s “Sister Wives,” some Americans continue to believe that polygamy is not only accepted by Mormons but widely practiced even though The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially banned the practice in 1890.
According to Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, many evangelicals view Mormonism as a kind of ‘theological-cult.’
“There is just a long standing hostility on the part of evangelicals towards Mormons,” Mouw said. “There is a counterculture movement that depicts Mormonism not only as heretical but as inspired by Satan. The idea the Joseph Smith was visited by an angel and was told that the creeds of Christianity were an abomination has never sat well with evangelicals.”
Another source of tension cited by Mouw between Mormons and evangelicals is the competition between their missionaries abroad, as the two groups often vie for converts from the same populations. This competition provides a platform for misinformation to be spread.
“I think there are theological and religious concerns about Mormonism and the inconsistencies that may exist between Mormonism and the Christian faith,” said Dr. Tony Evans, pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas.
Even though Romney faces scrutiny — whether fair or unfair — for his deep-rooted faith, the former Massachusetts governor is much more culpable for the criticism he receives for his shifting record on sensitive issues such as abortion and gay marriage. As a Republican in a historically progressive state, Romney often found himself supporting moderate positions on social issues, putting him at odds with the more conservative part of his party. He has found himself on both sides of the gay marriage debate and made statements (like one during his Senate run against Ted Kennedy in 1994 to protect a woman’s right to choose) that leave many social conservatives distrustful that Romney has made a true commitment to the goals of the religious right.
“He’s kind of wishy-washy on a lot of things. He doesn’t like to upset the apple cart and I don’t like that,” said Steve Burkholder, a Tea Party leader from Wellsville, Pennsylvania, in an April interview with Judy Woodruff.
Watch Judy’s segment on social conservatives below.
Voters like Burkholder represent the Christian conservative base that was so lukewarm to Romney during the GOP primary season.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the policies he has taken in the past,” said Tom McClusky, Vice President of Government Affairs for Family Research Council, a conservative Christian advocacy group. “He has a history of not being on the side of pro-life and marriage.”
The relationship between Romney and the Christian right had veered so far off-course during the Republican primary that a group of wealthy, evangelical leaders met in Houston in an attempt to derail Romney’s momentum by concentrating their efforts behind a single non-Romney candidate.
“I would say he probably wasn’t the first choice,” said McClusky.
Now that Romney is the all-but-coronated Republican nominee to face off against President Barack Obama this fall, he and evangelical voters find themselves in an arranged marriage of sorts.
For his part, Romney has continued to court the evangelical vote. In May he announced his support for an education platform including provisions for school vouchers, a program popular with home schoolers. Earlier this summer, Romney reiterated his opposition to gay marriage. Romney also scheduled a trip to Israel this summer, a move heralded by foreign policy hawks and evangelicals alike. During a commencement speech at Liberty University, a college founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell, Romney again reached out to evangelical voters.
“People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology,” Romney said in the speech. “Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.”
Romney has had phone conversations and met privately with several high-profile evangelical leaders. His campaign assigned one of its key advisors, Peter Flaherty, to be its main liaison with the conservative Christian community, a sign of just how serious they are about courting the important bloc of voters.
Evangelical leaders are coming around to Romney, too. Much of the negative rhetoric about Mormonism has been muted lately and the group’s leaders have seemed to have lately come to terms with a potential Romney presidency, citing President Obama as the greater of the ‘two evils’ in the 2012 election.
“I think evangelicals are able to parse the difference– that they are electing a president and not a pastor,” said Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research, a Christian consultancy and polling firm.
But what effect will evangelical voters really have in the 2012 election?
The majority of the states with large evangelical populations are safely held Republican territory. But a few — Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Michigan and Ohio — are predicted to be closely contested battleground states this fall. North Carolina and Virginia have the largest percentage of evangelical voters, but each of the other states have evangelical populations over 25 percent. If Romney can mobilize this group in November it could mean the difference in a close election.
“I think evangelical and faith based voters are going to be the key in this election,” said McClusky. “When they really get involved, like in 2004, then the election goes to the more conservative candidate.”
Romney is certainly hoping so.
Beth Garbitelli contributed to this report.