Romney and the disappearing evangelical dilemma

Nearly one year ago I ignited a national discussion about Mitt Romney’s religious faith by labeling Mormonism as a “cult.” Although I readily acknowledged that Romney’s Mormonism did not disqualify him from the presidency (and that I would prefer him to President Obama), I did predict that if Romney became the Republican nominee, President Obama would win a second term.  I’m now willing to admit my prognostication may have been premature for several reasons.

I had based my prediction of Romney’s defeat on the belief that enough evangelicals would stay at home in November due to a lack of enthusiasm for a Romney presidency.  Some evangelical Christians have been troubled by Romney’s Mormonism, while others are disturbed by his lack of a consistent, conservative record on social issues.

Since evangelicals historically have voted overwhelmingly for Republicans, it would not take many evangelicals sitting out this election to ensure an Obama victory. For example, in 2004 George W. Bush garnered 79 percent of the evangelical vote and won a second term; yet, in 2008 John McCain captured 73 percent of the evangelical vote and lost to Barack Obama.

I had no reason to think that evangelicals would be any more enthused about Mitt Romney than they were about John McCain. But over the last 11 months three developments have changed my mind about Romney’s appeal to evangelical voters.

First, many evangelical Christians are incensed by the Obama administration’s relentless assaults on religious freedom.

In October of 2011, the Obama Justice Department argued before the Supreme Court in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC that the ministerial exemption to federal hiring standards should be rescinded.  The revocation of that exemption would mean that churches could be forced to violate their doctrinal beliefs and hire homosexuals as pastors or women as priests.

An astonished Supreme Court asked the Obama representative if the federal government should have jurisdiction over whom a church hired as its minister and the representative said “Yes.” Fortunately, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected that claim. Yet, the fact that the Obama administration would state such a position should be chilling to people of any faith.


Evangelicals were similarly angered in January, 2012 by the mandate issued by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requiring organizations to provide contraceptives, sterilization services, and abortion-inducing drugs to its employees. Although there was a narrow religious exemption to this order, religious charities and hospitals were required to violate their beliefs and offer these “benefits.”

In a demonstration of spiritual solidarity, evangelicals and Catholics joined together to protest this outrageous example of governmental overreach into religious institutions. To date, there has been no satisfactory resolution of this crisis and both pastors and priests have said they would choose prison over compliance with Obama’s edict.

A second milestone development this past year was President Obama’s public approval of homosexual marriage in May of 2012 which has both energized efforts of evangelical Republicans and at the same time diminished his support among evangelical Democrats (primarily Hispanics and African-Americans).

One does not have to be a homophobe to understand that it is impossible to reconcile homosexual marriage with the teaching of Jesus Christ who described God’s design for marriage as one man and one woman in a lifetime relationship (Matthew 19:4-6). Any deviation from that standard—adultery, polygamy, pre-marital sex, or homosexuality—is a sin according traditional Christian and Jewish teaching.

Beyond the theological objection to homosexual marriage, evangelicals see a flood of societal problems that will be unleashed on a country that attempts to redefine marriage. Numerous studies have demonstrated that depression, incarceration, and even suicide are more prevalent among children who are not reared by their biological father and mother.

Princeton University sociologist Sara McLanahan and others have noted that the ideal situation for a child is to be in a family with both biological parents.  That reality may have been the impetus for Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s benediction at the Democratic National Convention (which had just adopted a platform supporting homosexual marriage.) “Empower us with your grace, so that we might resist the temptation to replace the moral law with idols of our own making, or to remake those institutions you have given us for the nurturing of life and community.”

President Obama’s support of homosexual marriage is not only igniting support among evangelical Republicans but will also suppress voter turnout among evangelical African-Americans and Hispanics.

I have a number of minorities in my church who voted for President Obama in 2008 but are finding it difficult to support him in 2012 because they cannot reconcile his stance on homosexual marriage with their Christian faith. They are insulted by those who would compare the fight for “marriage equality” with their centuries-long struggle for civil rights. As one African-American clergyman in our area said, “Don’t equate sin with the color of my skin!”

These evangelical Christian minorities are not going to suddenly transform into Republican supporters of Mitt Romney.  They will simply sit out this election which in a close election could be enough to deny President Obama a second term.

Finally, Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate sent a strong signal to evangelicals that they would have someone in the White House who represents their values.  Had Romney picked a pro-choice vice-presidential candidate like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, it would have only confirmed many evangelicals’  suspicion about Romney—that his  conversion to conservatism was  a matter of convenience rather than conviction. However, Paul Ryan’s strong pro-life record and unapologetic support for traditional marriage have assured evangelicals that when it comes time to nominate the next Supreme Court justice there will be someone at the table who represents their values.

I don’t pretend to know whether Mitt Romney will win on November 6. However, I am certain that President Obama’s hard turn to the left and Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan have made Mitt Romney much more palatable to evangelical Christians—like me.