Conventional wisdom in the last election cycle held that Mitt Romney could never win the hearts of America’s conservative evangelicals—the Republican base—because he’s Mormon, and evangelicals don’t consider Mormons to be properly Christian. “I don’t believe conservative Christians will vote for a Mormon, but that remains to be seen,” James Dobson, then chairman of Focus on the Family, told radio host Laura Ingraham in the run-up to the 2008 contest.
But just two years later, the person who has most loudly, most passionately, and, some would say, most convincingly gathered voters around a faith-and-values message is media personality Glenn Beck—who happens to be Mormon. “America today begins to turn back to God,” Beck told the throngs who gathered for his “Restoring Honor” rally in August. And though the event was not explicitly political, there’s no question that it, and his upcoming rallies and speeches, will drive conservative voters to the polls. Election watchers thought initially that midterm turnout would be “driven strictly by economic issues,” says D. Michael Lindsay, a sociologist at Rice University and author of Faith in the Halls of Power. “The infusion of faith-based rhetoric suggests there is an even deeper motivation for conservative voters than we originally thought.”
Christian leaders are expressing more enthusiasm for Beck than they did for Romney. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, says he still doesn’t think Mormons are Christians. But he attended Beck’s rally because he says the talk-show host is tapping into a profound dissatisfaction that will be reflected in November. “There are millions and millions of Americans,” says Land, “who think their country has taken a wrong turnÉIt began to emphasize rights and privileges instead of obligations and responsibilities. Beck talks about restoring a time when we had honor, when people kept their promises to their spouses and to God and their children.”
Of course, Beck passes muster where Romney didn’t because, for one, he isn’t running for president. “You can be just sort of anybody—a business person or an entertainer or a musician or a TV personality—and talk about values and morals and people will rally around you,” says Mark DeMoss, who helped Romney with evangelical outreach in 2008. “But then a lot of people apply another standard…if you’re going to be president.” Moreover, Beck can speak for socially conservative Christians because he keeps the specifics of his faith to himself. “He isn’t seen as pushing his Mormonism,” says Land. (Only 17 percent of Americans know Beck is a Mormon, according to a new poll.)
While Beck articulates the frustrations many conservative Christian voters feel currently, Lindsay says Beck’s anointing among leaders of the religious right reflects something else: a willingness to reconsider Romney in 2012. “It’s definitely a testing of the waters,” he says. After all, conservative, white Protestants joined forces with their old foes, Roman Catholics, to fight abortion; they may find among Latter-day Saints surprising and powerful allies on that and other issues, like gay marriage, as well.