Mitt Romney suspended his presidential campaign yesterday, after his poor showing on Super Tuesday made a victory over John McCain all but mathematically impossible. As much as McCain and Mike Huckabee loathe Mitt, it's been easy to imagine them conspiring to deliver the killing stroke. Conventional wisdom says Huckabee won five southern states outright and helped turn others, such as Missouri, to McCain by taking conservative votes away from Romney.
But Romney probably wasn't going to earn those ballots anyway. Southern states have GOP primary electorates dominated by evangelical Christians, specifically by Southern Baptists. And many of those Southern Baptists are committed to blocking the ascension of a Mormon to the presidency.
For the conservative pundits backing Romney who missed this story, ideology trumps theology. But for many evangelicals, it's the other way around. Southern Baptists and Mormons are not only two of the four largest religious denominations in the country, they are the most aggressive of American missionary faiths, and have been on a collision course for generations.
Protestant leaders have been objecting to various tenets of Mormonism for 175 years, but Southern Baptists grew especially alarmed when Mormon churches moved into Georgia and Texas in the 1980s. Since then, the Southern Baptist Convention has moved aggressively to warn its members about the "dangers" of the Mormon faith, characterizing Mormonism as a cult in books and teaching kits it has offered to its members. As Columbia doctoral student Neil J. Young put it, "Probably no other organization in the nation has played a bigger role in perpetuating the idea that Mormonism is a cult than the Southern Baptist Convention."
In 1998, the Southen Baptists held their annual convention in Salt Lake City, opposing the "cult" head-on. As one minister called Mormonism "counterfeit Christianity" and the convention passed a resolution stipulating "biblical revelation [as opposed to, say, the Book of Mormon] as the sole source of saving truth," 3,000 Baptist volunteers went knocking on doors in the heart of the world capital of Mormonism, attempting to evangelize local residents.
Something else happened at that 1998 confab: The governor of Arkansas and former president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention, a fellow named Mike Huckabee, addressed the Pastors' Conference, a two-day meeting preceding the actual convention. "I got into politics," Huckabee told his fellow Baptist ministers, "because I knew government didn't have the real answers, that the real answers lie in accepting Jesus Christ into our lives." Reporters attending the Pastors' Conference found copies of Huckabee's most recent book, Kids Who Kill: Confronting our Culture of Violence, in the press room. They also got a book called Mormonism Unmasked.
The Baptists' propaganda efforts have been successful. In November 2006, 53 percent of evangelical Christians (compared with 43 percent of all Americans) told a Rasmussen survey they would never even consider voting for a Mormon presidential candidate. Last December, the Pew Research Center found that of white evangelicals who attend church regularly, 52 percent believe Mormonism is not Christian.
Maybe because the kind of Republicans Romney hung out with at Bain Capital and the Olympics don't share this outlook (62 percent of white mainline Protestants told Pew they think Mormonism is Christian), he rather blithely dismissed the views underlying these numbers. But they cropped up almost from the beginning of the presidential campaign. Last August, for example, in advance of the Iowa straw poll, a group called U.S. Christians for Truth circulated a flyer that stated: "We strongly believe that Jesus Christ, if he were alive in the flesh in this time and voted, would NEVER vote for Mitt Romney under any circumstances. ... Mitt Romney represents Mormonism which is counterfeit Christianity, a cult."
On December 5, the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board launched a three-part website series called "Is Mormonism Christian?" Among the highlights of the second installment: "Deceived or deceiver? Either way, it seems pretty clear that Joseph Smith was not a prophet of God. Accordingly, despite the fact that the Mormon church embraces a few beliefs in line with biblical Christianity it is demonstrably a false religion." The following day, the series declared, "Mormonism is a theological cult." And in addressing the question of Romney's candidacy, it stated that while his issue positions could be what matter most, "others may argue, a Mormon president would provide Mormonism with visibility beyond anything it has had up to now and consequently give a boost to Mormon missionary efforts."
Less than a week later, The New York Times Magazine quoted Huckabee as saying he didn't know much about Mormonism and asking, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" Huckabee later said he was speaking out of unfamiliarity, with no harm intended. Sure he was. Just like the commenters on Huckabee's website who slammed Mormonism for weeks afterward were, too.
By the end of 2007, some Mormons were wondering if the cross that famously appeared in the window of Huckabee's Christmas ad was directed specifically against their faith, which focuses more on Jesus' rising than his death. Various churches in South Carolina devoted Christmas-season sermons to anti-Mormon lectures. Evangelicals helped get out the vote for Huckabee in Michigan. "If we turned out every evangelical Christian on election day, Gov. Huckabee would get six times as many votes as Romney!" Huckabee supporter Gary Glenn wrote in an e-mail on January 6. Glenn listed the churches the campaign needed to mobilize: "Assembly of God, Baptist, Church of God, Nazarenes, Lutheran, non-denominational, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Reformed, Word of Faith." And which to avoid: Catholics and Mormons, who were lumped together with "any church you know to be liberal on issues such as abortion and protecting traditional marriage."
Obviously, there are reasons beyond faith for the failure of Romney's campaign. The guy's a puling phony, and McCain and Huckabee are both funnier and better under pressure. But maybe Romney's campaign was doomed for the simple reason that as he exposed his Mormonism to a greater number of right-wing Christians, he branded himself as unacceptably impure, a priori, to a critically large subset of them. And maybe the reason Romney got so little bang for his advertising buck is because the cost of luring evangelicals to support a Mormon--of conversion, if you will--is essentially infinite.
Going back at least to the Clinton years, politics in America has been realigning across rather than along denominational lines. We are increasingly divided as seculars vs. traditionalists, and these days, conservative Catholics often believe they have more in common with conservative Protestants than with casual Catholics. Keeping these religion-first voters in lockstep at the polls has been an important part of Republican strategy. And few groups have proven as reliably willing to vote for ideological allies outside of their faith as Mormons, who have been fanatically Republican for decades.
But sometimes denomination still matters. Southern Baptists were always ready to draw the line at supporting a Mormon candidate for President. Their traditions say Mormons are false Christians. The Internet gives them a way to spread their teachings and attacks. And the Huckabee campaign provided evangelicals who wanted to stop Mitt Romney a way to cast their vote for a Southern Baptist.
Romney probably should have cast himself as the take-charge northern governor he is, as many commentators have suggested. Among Southern Baptists who see him as antichristian, Romney's effort to become the candidate of the religious right never had a chance.
Peter Keating, the former senior writer for politics at George, covers sports business for ESPN The Magazine.
By Peter Keating