I received an email from a reader who was thoroughly angry with me. I asked for permission to use the text in a blog post, but I’ve not received further communications, so I will paraphrase the writer’s complaints, since I think there may be more than a few who feel this way. The complaint boiled down to this: Contrary to what I asserted in my post on the Reasons Romney Lost, Romney didn’t lose because he didn’t talk about important social issues enough, because said this e-mailer, Romney did indeed talk about these issues important to Christians. If he did, many of my evangelical Christian friends didn’t hear it. These issues were largely avoided in the debates, as well as in the stumps speeches late in the race. The perception among many Christians, at least here in the middle of the Bible Belt, was that Romney was uninterested or evasive on issues important to Christians. You can argue that he did in fact talk about all of these topics at some point during the cycle, but the perception among evangelicals in my vicinity was that he avoided talk of religion whenever possible. Again, it matters not whether he actually discussed it, but instead whether he appeared willing to broach these subjects, and in what frequency. The problems in the Republican party are much deeper than I once thought. It’s not only the establishment that doesn’t understand the grass roots, but also that different segments of the base fundamentally misunderstand one another.
To conservatives concerned primarily with freedom issues, they really don’t “get” the evangelical voters. To many evangelicals who comprise a broad portion of the conservative base, faith isn’t supposed to be something you talk about once a week. It’s something they believe ought to inform the way a person lives, the decisions one makes, and the way one conducts himself toward others. Evangelicals will be the first to tell you that they aren’t infallible, but the people who comprise this segment tend to try in earnest to live out their faith in daily life. They put their faith ahead of family, ahead of friends and community, and certainly ahead of politics. They’re not generally interested in “going along to get along” because that’s not what their faith dictates. Therefore, when they see candidates who seem less than fully concerned about faith, at least in their perceptions, they tend to be less than concerned about supporting those candidates. Period. You can accuse them of being too rigid in their beliefs if you like, but you see, they take that as a compliment. They intend to be rigidly faithful to their beliefs. They are accustomed to the left and to moderates who mock them, most frequently comparing them to some sort of westernized Taliban, and it merely steels their resolve. Contrary to the propaganda against them, however, they’re not looking for a preacher in the presidency. They simply want a person of deep and abiding faith and understanding who isn’t afraid to take a few jeers and lumps from the left on this basis. They perceived widely that Romney didn’t fulfill that requirement.
Some will immediately say in response that “well, at least Romney is better than Obama, and worth getting him out of there.” True enough, but please remember: Evangelical Christians will tend to view politics as a thing of this Earth, but they’re less concerned ultimately with Earth than with their salvation. Some of them genuinely wonder at the consequences of selling out their souls on issues important to their faith for the sake of transitory political expedience. Once viewed in this light, it is easy to understand how evangelicals would view elections as less important, and with no candidate appearing to fulfill their requirements for support, many were certain to simply walk away. You may not like that, and you may not agree with that view, but if you want to understand what has happened, this is a part of the formula you ignore at your own peril.
I will also tell you quite plainly that if you believe Romney’s religion had nothing to do with it, you’re making the mistake of projection. You’re projecting your sense of religious tolerance onto people who widely view Mormonism as a cult. Of course, I realize this fully because as my wife points out, in her homeland(Germany,) there are widely thought to be two “legitimate” religions, being Catholicism and the Lutherans, and the Catholics aren’t entirely convinced about the latter. As children, they learn about their faith, and in much the same way as evangelicals here in the US view Mormons as part of a cult, German Catholics and Lutherans tend to view any church newer than theirs in much the same light. My point to you is this: There was always going to be a percentage of evangelical Christians who would never support Mitt Romney, and that was one of the risks implicit in nominating him. Even though Romney won Texas, it wasn’t by nearly so much as one might expect. I think if candidates like Ted Cruz hadn’t been on the ballot, Romney might have been in some danger here.
Of course, the misunderstanding isn’t all one-way. They don’t understand why others in the GOP don’t try to live out their faith as a priority in daily life. They may admire the wisdom and common sense of free market ideals, economic liberty, and all sorts of issues that are mainstays of the conservative sphere, but they don’t really fully understand why anybody would support a candidate who isn’t strong in his or her faith, and willing to testify to that faith in public. As I said, the misunderstandings run in all directions, between all factions, but in politics, perceptions become realities, whether or not we think that’s right. I’m not suggesting that conservatives ought to yield to false perceptions, but that instead they should challenge them instead of leaving them without refutation.
You see, it doesn’t matter whether Mitt Romney mentioned the issues of abortion and traditional marriage a few times along the campaign trail. It matters that he didn’t exhibit his beliefs through his actions when he was pro-choice until a few years ago, or amenable to gay marriage while Governor of Massachusetts. Those things stick. You will not know this, but early in the primary season, I had to ban some posters for what I viewed as over-the-top assaults on Romney’s faith. Some were quite lengthy, but I wasn’t about to permit that sort of bashing. It was real, however, and in retrospect, I’m afraid that in so doing, I may have done a disservice because it stifled those who feel as they do on these matters. You didn’t get to see some of these comments, and maybe if you had, you might have understood why getting the full body of the evangelical Christian segment of conservatism to the polls for Mitt Romney was going to be a chore in any case. That’s the truth of it. What you do with the information is up to you, but if you’re ever to see the sort of full support from evangelicals any national conservative victory will require, you’re going to need to find candidates who satisfy their minimum requirements. In too many ways, Mitt Romney didn’t.