Romney and Religion

On paper, Mitt Romney was an excellent candidate for the Republican nomination for president. Handsome, professionally successful, personally wealthy, happily married and with a blemish-free past, Romney looked like a pretty good bet. He was pitching himself as a conservative's conservative—not a maverick like John McCain or an economic populist/evangelical like Mike Huckabee but a reliable leader who could bring core Republican ideals of strong defense, small government and old-style family values to the White House. With his resume, he should have been believable.

But he wasn't. Questions about Romney's religious faith—he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—have dogged him since he announced his candidacy in February 2007. Mormons, as LDS members are known, are still regarded as oddballs or worse in America; in some conservative Christian circles, Mormons are seen as heretics. (One clear divide in their theologies: Mormons believe that "As man is, God once was; as God is, man may be.") Pundits and political operatives wondered from the outset whether Romney could overcome his religion's unpopularity and make a convincing case for himself. According to 2007 data from the Pew Research Center, 25 percent of Americans are "less likely" to vote for a Mormon, compared to 12 percent for a woman and 6 percent for an African-American. David Magleby, the dean of the political-science department at Brigham Young University, says he believes that, all things being equal, Romney's religion scuttled his campaign. Will history say that in 2008, the year that America showed itself to be enthusiastically ready for a black or female president, it still wasn't ready for a Mormon?

Certainly, Romney tried to reach across the chasm his religion created between himself and potential voters. In December, after months of agonizing, Romney made what he hoped would be a transcendent speech about faith at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, introduced by former president George H.W. Bush. In it, he linked his own sense of piety to the religious faith of all Americans, and he appealed to his countrymen's sense of fair play and open-mindedness to accept him as he was. The speech was strongest at the beginning. "My faith is the faith of my fathers," Romney said that day. "I will be true to them and to my beliefs. Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they're right, so be it."

The spin, in the immediate aftermath, was positive. He nailed it, the pundits said; he did what he needed to do. Almost instantly, though, the pendulum swung back again, and Romney was shredded in the press and elsewhere for failing to include skeptics and nonbelievers in his vision of America—and at the same time, for using the word "Mormon" only once in the speech. He already had a reputation as a flip-flopper, changing positions on abortion and gay marriage to garner votes. Once again, Romney was seen as pandering to win votes and not talking about the truths in his heart.

And there lay the problem. Romney failed not because he couldn't sell his religion but because he couldn't sell himself. Romney never convinced Republican voters that he had a core, a soul, a sense of himself that transcended politics, focus groups and politically efficacious maneuvering. Whatever he was trying to sell at any given moment in the campagin, he was simply unconvincing. "At a very fundamental level, he had an inability to connect with voters," says Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention. "He looked like a presidential candidate, but he just didn't connect with enough voters."

Many Romney supporters were aggrieved, saying Huckabee played on Christians' suspicions of Mormons early on, in Iowa, and so seized the win for himself. Even they concede, however, that Romney's problems as a candidate were much bigger than his faith. After Super Tuesday, with McCain the strong favorite and Huckabee sweeping up the evangelical votes McCain left behind, Romney filled the role that perhaps most authentically fits him: number cruncher. He calculated that he had run out of room, and he moved swiftly to act on that data, ending his campaign. Whether—and how much—Romney's religion cost him votes will remain an open question. But it's clear that whether or not voters wanted a mainstream Christian, they did demand a sense of authenticity and higher purpose. As a candidate, Romney's greatest weakness was that he looked as if winning was the one thing he really believed in all along.