I have a much harder time seeing how insinuations about the peculiarity of Romney’s theological commitments fits into a narrative about why Americans shouldn’t trust him with a lousy economy. His Mormonism, in this sense, may turn out to be a lot like Barack Obama’s connections to Bill Ayers and the Chicago left, which conservatives tried to make hay from in the waning days of the ‘08 election: In a different kind of race, it might be a serious liability, but in a campaign focused on jobs, debt and growth, trying to sow doubts about Romney’s faith will just make the Democrats look out of touch.
That could be, but this doesn’t take into account the importance of culture and identity politics in any mass democratic political system. One of the common laments on the left is that cultural conservatives vote against their own economic interests, which disregards the importance that cultural issues and culture war politics have for them. Even conservatives inclined to agree that the GOP doesn’t serve the economic interests of its working- and lower-middle class constituents would agree that Republican appeals to American nationalism/exceptionalism and generic religious faith are important for retaining the loyalty of these voters even when, or perhaps especially when, Republican governance has not delivered much in terms of prosperity and opportunity for them. I would argue that identity politics will work against Romney in the same way that the GOP has used them to its advantage in previous cycles. In fact, it is partly because the GOP has made appeals to “faith” to be as generic as possible that this has masked the degree to which many of its Christian supporters have always assumed that this refers to their Christian faith. Religious conservatives in the U.S. are ecumenical in their political alliances, but only up to a point, and for many of them a Mormon presidential candidate is a bridge too far.
As Ross notes, and as I have observed before, there is a broad cross-section of the public that admits that they won’t support a Mormon for President. We can’t know how important of a factor this is for the people saying this, and we shouldn’t assume that it would actually keep all of them from voting for Romney no matter what, but it will be a significant drag on his candidacy should he become the nominee. What makes Romney’s religion significantly different from Obama’s associations in Hyde Park as a political matter is that the latter seemed to have no real relationship to who Obama was, what he was proposing to do, or how he would govern. Obama’s associations were supposed to prove that he was a left-wing radical. This didn’t catch on because it was so completely at odds with the conventional center-left, fairly hawkish campaign that Obama ran, and because the arguments used to promote this idea were nonsense.
Concerns about Romney’s religion carry more weight than weak guilt-by-association attacks. Among some conservative Christians, there is concern that electing a Mormon would represent a form of acceptance or an endorsement of a religion that they consider to be not only not Christian but fundamentally false and misleading. For those who insist that ours is or should be a “Christian nation,” that is unacceptable. Among quite a few secular liberals and critics of “theocons,” Mormonism represents the cultural conservatism they dislike, and the more alarmist arguments portray a Mormon President as a threat to the separation of church and state. Viewed this way, Romney’s religion is not just a distinctive biographical detail, but something that potentially threatens the way that some conservatives and liberals understand what America is. It has the unusual disadvantage of provoking opposition from cultural conservatives and those who can’t stand cultural conservatives, and it wins disapproval from a significant percentage of everyone in between.
Economic conditions may be bad enough that this will not be enough to keep Romney from winning, but if his religion would be a serious liability at other times it seems unlikely that this problem will go away now. The difficulty for Romney is that his political opponents don’t need to sow doubts. The doubts are already there, and will continue to be there whether anyone mentions them.