Latter Day Taint?

Evidence suggests that Mitt Romney's religion is less important to voters than it is to reporters.

As Mitt Romney continues his sputtering but probably inevitable progress towards the Republican nomination, his Mormonism continues to provide a source of endless fascination for commentators, if not for the majority of actual voters. It is widely seen as the most interesting thing about him -- more interesting even than his vast wealth, modest tax bill or centrist record as governor of Massachusetts.

The latter, indeed, may count against him in the remaining primaries more than his religious affiliation which, considering the torrent of media speculation, has been mentioned very little during the campaign by the major candidates. Evangelical votes may have cost him South Carolina. Mormon votes undoubtedly boosted him in Nevada. But Romney's opponents on the religious right are (publicly at least) far more troubled by his perceived liberalism than by his membership of a minority faith.

Indeed, while the Evangelical wing of the Republican party always makes for great copy, its home-grown candidates have flopped badly in the primaries. Michele Bachmann and, perhaps more surprisingly, Rick Perry proved to have limited voter-appeal. In their search for a Stop Romney candidate, Christian conservatives have turned to two Catholics, one of whom (Newt Gingrich) has less than compelling religious credentials. The other, Rick Santorum, has now widely been written off, although he is said to be doing well in Minnesota. Most Evangelicals prefer him to Romney, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't prefer Romney to Obama.

A generation or two ago, the thought of Evangelical Protestants lining up behind a Catholic candidate would have seemed as unimaginable as their support for a Mormon might today. There is some evidence of resistance among some such voters to the idea of a Mormon president. A survey last year showed that 47 per cent of white evangelical Protestants would be somewhat or very comfortable with a Mormon in the White House -- more than the 42 per cent of the general population who expressed a similar sentiment, but not dramatically more. And Mormons were viewed favourably by two thirds of the public, including by two thirds of Protestant evangelicals.

Mormons themselves, meanwhile, have mixed feelings about the relentless focus on their religion.

Romney's major problem with such voters is his image as a Massachusetts liberal. In the run up to the South Carolina primary, a leading Southern Baptist, Richard Land, even criticised him for being "not Mormon enough", contrasting his previously liberal stances on issues such as abortion or gay marriage with the conservative line generally taken by the Latter Day Saints. He seems to have taken the hint, launching a charm offensive aimed especially at Catholics. Last night, for example, he lambasted new federal regulations requiring that employee healthcare plans offered by hospitals, universities and other institutions include provision for contraceptives and morning-after pills.

Responding to Catholic fears that the rules would apply to them, Romney described the proposals as "a violation of conscience". "We must have a president who is willing to protect America's first right: our right to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience," he said. Similarly, earlier this week he urged supporters to sign a petition condemning "the Obama administration's attacks on religious liberty."

As ever with Romney, there's a subtlety in his choice of words: the reference to "the dictates of our own conscience" might have been aimed at those suspicious of his own belief-system. And his appeal to the First Amendment points to his continuing desire to preserve the separation of his own religious and political spheres. The overriding sense, though, is of someone determined to say whatever it takes to win the nomination. The question remains whether he can do so while saying little enough to stand a chance in November's general election.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Show Hide image

Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.