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
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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