A new poll from Virginia, a key swing state, suggests that evangelicals will help put Mitt Romney in the White House this November.
It has become a truism in recent years that evangelicals are critical to our national elections. As New York Times reporter Erik Eckholm pointed out on April 14, evangelicals accounted for nearly one-fourth of all ballots cast in recent presidential elections. Their lukewarm support for John McCain in 2008—with many staying home on Election Day and upwards of 30 percent of their 18-29 year-olds casting votes for Obama (Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research)—helped give the White House to the Democrats.
Republicans have feared that Romney’s Mormonism will mean even fewer evangelical votes for their candidate in November. They cite a November 2011 Pew Forum poll that found 15 percent of evangelicals saying they would refuse to vote for Romney simply because he is a Mormon.
Of course, McCain in 2008 won 74 percent of the white evangelical vote, and still lost. But several things are different this time around. Even a slight increase in the percentage of evangelicals at the polls will have significant consequences. The Baylor Religion Survey estimates that evangelicals are now one-third of the population, or 100 million people. An increase of only 1 percent at the polls—a million voters—most likely means a two-to-one advantage for Romney among those million votes, which could tip several key states against Obama.
Now there is fresh evidence that evangelicals in swing states are more numerous than ever, and prefer Romney to Obama by a wide margin. A March 26-April 9 poll of Virginia residents conducted by the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College found that 58 percent of the Virginia population is evangelical, and white evangelicals prefer Romney by a 36-point spread (65 percent to 29 percent).
Not surprisingly, Virginia evangelicals are ambivalent about Romney’s religion. More than twice as many evangelicals as non-evangelicals in Virginia (37 percent to 16 percent) think Mormons are not Christians, and 74 percent of the evangelicals (vs. 61 percent of non-evangelicals) say Mormonism is “very different” from their own faith. Sixty-one per cent of evangelicals think the Mormon religion is not Christian or are unsure if it is Christian, compared to only 39 percent of non-evangelicals.
Evangelicals have always considered Mormon religion very different from their own, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. For example, they typically protest that Mormons believe in salvation by good works. Some Mormons do indeed believe this, just as many Catholics and some Protestants believe they will be saved by being good Christians. Yet the Book of Mormon teaches salvation by Christ’s work of grace: “There is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:8).
Yet evangelicals have legitimate reasons to believe that Mormon beliefs are different from those of historic Christian orthodoxy. For while Mormons believe Jesus is now fully God, they do not believe he was always God. Nor do they believe in the Trinity and the traditional Christian doctrine that God created the world from nothing.
Despite these religious differences, a large majority of Virginia evangelicals—who themselves represent a majority of Virginia voters—say they will vote for Mitt Romney, a Mormon.
But why? Why do an overwhelming majority of Virginia evangelicals (79 percent) say that Romney’s religion “makes no difference” in their voting for him? The answer seems to be that they have seen Obama’s policies and dislike them. Sixty-six percent of evangelicals (vs. only 50 percent of non-evangelicals) disapprove of Obamacare. Evangelicals are just as worried about the economy and the deficit as non-evangelicals. In fact, a majority of evangelicals support the Tea Party (53 percent) while only a quarter (29 percent) of non-evangelicals do. Seventy-nine percent of evangelicals think the country is on the wrong track (vs. 66 percent of non-evangelicals).
Evangelicals, then, will vote against Obama because of the economy and their suspicion that policies such as the recent HHS mandate requiring insurance to pay for abortions will threaten their religious freedom. They will vote for Romney because they think his policies will grow the economy without jeopardizing their deepest convictions—such as their belief in traditional marriage as the bedrock of society.
(Contrary to the current opinion that Romney is losing the women’s vote, 63 percent of Virginia’s evangelicals are women, and they support him over Obama by a broad margin. This means that Romney will win the women’s vote in Virginia, and probably other states with evangelical majorities.)
If evangelicals vote for Romney in greater numbers than for McCain in 2008—and it appears that they might—it won’t be the first time that Christians voted for an American president who was less than orthodox. After all, George Washington was a deist who usually referred to the deity in vague and impersonal terms. Thomas Jefferson believed the doctrines of the Trinity, atonement and original sin were essentially pagan, and rejected the possibility of miracles or resurrection. John Adams also denied the Trinity, along with most orthodox Christian doctrine, while holding to a Stoic-like resignation to fate. Lincoln and his wife attended séances, and William Howard Taft was a Unitarian who rejected the deity of Christ.
Christians who voted for these presidents showed they were looking for a Commander-in-Chief, not a theologian-in-chief. In this approach they echoed Martin Luther, who reputedly said, “I would rather be governed by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.”
Gerald R. McDermott is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College, and co-author of Evangelicals and Mormons: Exploring the Boundaries.
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