There’s something a bit off in the way that pundits talk about religion, usually. Take the case of Mitt Romney. They want us to believe that the nub of his “Mormon problem” is that his faith will turn off a key voting bloc in the GOP’s base: evangelical Christians.
Sorry, but Romney’s problem with evangelicals is hardly the fact that he’s a Mormon. His problem is that he isn’t Mormon enough.
Think about Romney and his faith for a moment. Does anything come to mind? Anything at all? If you didn’t know his religious affiliation by the media’s references to it, would you even know that he’s a Mormon, rather than a garden-variety Protestant or Catholic? Does he talk publicly about why he’s a Mormon? Do we know how the tradition has informed his values? Or what Joseph Smith and The Book of Mormon mean to him?
Contrast Romney with George W. Bush. There was never any doubt about where The Decider stood, even if he almost always chose his spot badly. Among the politically interested, who doesn’t know the story of Bush’s life-changing walk along a Maine beach with Billy Graham, and his conversion to Christianity at the age of 40? And who can forget his masterful response when a reporter asked him to name his favorite philosopher. “Jesus Christ,” he said, without missing a beat, “because he changed my life.”
Sure, that answer cost him the vote of all the philosophy majors. But it played brilliantly to average Americans. The smug premise of the question – who doesn’t have a favorite philosopher? – gave people another reason to hate the media for its pretense and condescension. And it gave Bush another chance to connect with his base by emphasizing what’s most important to them about religious experience.
For evangelical Christians, faith is about change and transformation. Its essence is conversion. They love nothing more than a story about the lost sheep finding his way back to the fold – the more lost, the better. The details are both entertaining and a way of dramatizing the power of accepting Jesus. This is why Bush’s alcoholism and his rumored drug use actually helped him with the base. Evangelicals aren’t judgmental about the depths of the sin you’ve fall into. They’re glad to hear your story about it, in detail. But there has to be a payoff. They have to know that you’ve changed; or that, with God’s miraculous help, you’ve overcome some kind of great hardship.
What is Mitt Romney’s story? It must be more complex than it seems. But for the casually interested voter, it’s a tale of one success after another. Privileged childhood. Private schooling. Harvard M.B.A. Beautiful wife. Fantastically successful business career. Governor of Massachusetts. Big, shiny, happy family. Multiplying homes and grandchildren. Multi-million dollar income, almost all of it from investments.
Romney’s life story is so cheery that it almost manages, perversely, to inspire a bit of affection for Bush, whose own path was a long record of failures and struggles well into middle age. At least in that biography you can find a recognizable human being. One of the well-known stories about Bush, for example, captures both the fraught nature of the father/son relationship and the terrible ordeal of establishing one’s own identity. Driving home from a night of drinking while visiting his parents in D.C., Bush lost control of his car and hit a trash can, which remained wedged under the car. He was 26 at the time. When his father confronted him about it, Bush upped the ante, making the incident about much more than a car crash. “I hear you’re looking for me,” he said. “You wanna go mano-a-mano right here?”
The story is ludicrous and poignant all at once – emotional porn for evangelicals, and a perfect setup to the payoff of Bush’s conversion many years down the road. It’s also a story that you can’t imagine coming from Romney, whose own youth is pretty well summed up by that now-infamous picture taken with his Bain colleagues in the 1980s, in which they’ve stuffed cash into their collars, pockets and mouths. It isn’t just the display of raw greed that’s so devastating about that photo, politically. It’s the fact that Romney seems so successful and polished – and, allowing for some aging, not a bit different than he appears today. It’s all well and good that he made a fortune and has apparently been a faithful husband for decades. But to really reach evangelicals’ hearts, he’d have to talk about some big failures along the way, and the role that his faith played in changing his life.
If he could, it wouldn’t matter that he’s a Mormon, just as it hasn’t mattered to evangelicals that Newt Gingrich is twice divorced and a Catholic. Gingrich’s late-in-life conversion and his owning up to past sins absolve all that. The key for evangelicals is the transforming power of faith, not the denomination or tradition that one belongs to.
The lack of a conversion story handicaps Romney in another critical way. Evangelicals’ identity is tightly bound up with their estrangement from the mainstream institutions of American society. The estrangement is mostly self-imposed, and it’s more rhetoric than reality. It’s a method for evangelical leaders to rally their people, divide the world into believers and unbelievers, and cast true believers as persecuted victims.
Having a conversion story is the clearest way of taking sides in this imaginary struggle. It allows evangelicals to hold the most powerful positions within government and the corporate world while remaining spiritually separate from the institutions that they run. Think about the way George W. cast himself as an anti-establishment man of the people while coming from maybe the most influential political establishment in all of American history – the Bush family. It wasn’t just the ranch in Texas and the frantic brush clearing. It was the conversion story. His base understood what it meant: that he had cast his lot with the persecuted, righteous remnant.
Romney’s record of flip-flopping is often held against him, but his real weakness is that he hasn’t made the most important flip-flop of all. He doesn’t connect with evangelicals because nothing in his life cancels out his establishment bona fides. There’s no cowboy swagger. No dropped g’s. No brush clearing. No conversion story. Nothing about what his faith actually means to him. Romney wears his Mormonism so lightly that, from the perspective of evangelicals, he might as well be an Episcopalian.
He seems to believe that his record of success as a businessman and governor should qualify him to be president. But that record is mostly a liability, because the base within the GOP is angry, and the object of its anger is precisely the corporate and governmental establishment that Romney is so obviously comfortable within. Romney doesn’t give off a whiff of victimhood. He doesn’t act as if he’s under siege by elites, or angry at them. He believes, rightly, that he belongs among them, and is proud of it. Among evangelicals, that kind of coziness with power is politically toxic.
What they want, desperately, is a leader who is itching to go medieval on the establishment’s ass. Someone who’s willing to risk sounding crazy for the sake of the cause. These are people, after all, who know by heart the biblical stories in which people are wiped out by all manner of violence: hailstorms, swarming clouds of flies and locusts, earthquakes, drought, drowning, famine, stoning, burning, hanging and spearing, just for starters. Whole tribes and cities are destroyed in one stroke in the Old Testament. And many evangelicals believe that human history will end in their lifetimes – that Jesus will return for believers and cast the rest of humanity into hell. People with such a keen sense of God’s imminent judgment aren’t looking for a leader who’s happy to play by the rules of business as usual. They’re looking for a leader who views established authority as the enemy – the kind of man, say, who once challenged his own father to a fistfight.
So it’s hard not to feel the evangelicals’ pain when they look at Romney. After three solid decades of loyalty to the GOP, this is the joke of a candidate the party offers up? A man who isn’t even comfortable using his real first name, Willard? A man who looks as if he should be in sunglasses and sandals, sipping strawberry daiquiris on a yacht? A man who embodies every single thing that they despise about Washington? They have good reasons to be skeptical about Romney. His Mormonism is the least of their worries.
To the business wing of the GOP, of course, Romney’s establishment credentials are a plus, and he comes off as an eminently reasonable man. Because of that, and because the field of candidates is so weak, he is on his way to winning the nomination.
But that prospect should keep the GOP’s grand poobahs awake at night, because Romney won’t excite the evangelical base in the general election. He doesn’t have a story that speaks to them. He doesn’t speak their language. He doesn’t get them at the gut level, the way George W. Bush did, and they certainly don’t get him. And the inconvenient truth is that without a strong turnout by the evangelicals this fall, Mitt Romney doesn’t have a prayer.