My Take: How Romney could transcend Mormonism with civil religion
Mitt Romney in Illinois, which holds its primary on Tuesday.
March 20th, 2012
08:13 AM ET

My Take: How Romney could transcend Mormonism with civil religion

Editor's Note: Dan Birdsong is a political science lecturer at the University of Dayton, teaching courses on the presidency, campaigns and elections and media.

By Dan Birdsong, Special to CNN

(CNN) - There has been a deliberate and concerted effort on the part of the Mitt Romney campaign, even before it officially began, to divert attention from the presidential candidate’s Mormonism by attempting to connect with primary voters by talking about a shared civil religion. But to be effective Romney must take this strategy much further.

What’s civil religion? It’s patriotism’s kissing cousin. It’s a kind of deeper version of nationalistic pride. It is an effort to link patriotism to morality and virtue. Think the phrase “God and country,” or the solemn reverence so many Americans have for our nation’s founding documents.

Romney puts himself at a disadvantage to his rivals and past presidents because he cannot, or is unwilling to, seamlessly link his faith to his patriotism.

Such a strategy would enhance what media types call his “personal narrative” and would go a long way toward forging a strong emotional connection with voters. Here’s how he can do it:

1. Talk about a sacred Constitution

Consider this: For some, the Bill of Rights is seen as analogous to the Ten Commandments. And even though the Bill of Rights is a human creation - and thus imperfect - many see the Constitution as sacred, beyond reproach.

Recently in Arizona, Romney used this sentiment on the campaign trail, saying the nation’s founding documents “were either inspired by God or they were written by brilliant people or perhaps a combination of both. …”

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Here we see Romney attempting to preach a version of American exceptionalism that many believe, but it comes off as soft, and fits into the troubled “Which Mitt?” brand.

A year ago, before Romney officially announced his candidacy, he said President Obama didn’t “understand what it is that makes this nation so successful, so powerful, so good.”

These rhetorical choices go beyond normal patriotic rhetoric and reveal Romney’s belief in America as good and the Constitution as sacred. They have the flavor of civil religion, but Romney remains too vague and needs to be more declarative.

2. Present himself as America’s patriarch

In the current campaign, Romney sings a song of American greatness.

After his win in New Hampshire, Romney tried to culturally connect with voters by defining his campaign as “... saving the soul of America.”

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“We want to restore America to the founding principles that made this country great,” Romney said. “This election, let’s fight for the America we love. We believe in America.”

Romney’s words paint the election as a moral imperative and a redemptive narrative.  By giving America human qualities, Romney makes himself the patriarch who can lead America back to a redemptive path.

Yet his rhetoric rings hollow because he does not define those founding principles, nor does he share a personal anecdote to connect to voters. You preach to the choir to get them to sing, but Romney needs to preach to the unconvinced.

3. Use civil religion to compensate for his Mormonism.

The former Massachusetts governor must convince the GOP primary voters that he is enough like them to rally the suburban warriors to join his campaign, and he must quell the quiet queries about his religion.

You see, Romney is facing a political reality: people don’t know much about Mormons. And as Ishmael reminds us in "Moby Dick," “Ignorance is the parent of fear.”

A recent Pew study found that when asked for one-word descriptions of presidential candidates, “Mormon” was the most common answer when describing Mitt Romney.

In June, a Gallup Poll found that only 76% of Americans would vote for a Mormon. The Pew Center found that while 68% say being a Mormon wouldn’t matter to their vote, 25% say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate.

While these perceptions are troubling for a country that values religious freedom, they are a political reality for the Romney campaign.

Indeed, these perceptions may help explain why Romney failed to win evangelical voters in Iowa, South Carolina, Missouri, Minnesota, or Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama.

4. Follow the lead of previous presidents

Past presidents have spoken with civil religion rhetoric, some more directly than others.

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were masterful in their weaving of civil religion into their rhetoric, allowing them to connect emotionally with the American public.

In comforting the nation after the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton called on the American people, “…to purge [themselves] of the dark forces which gave rise to this evil.  They are forces that threaten our common peace, our freedom, our way of life.”

President Bush in 2004 made this appeal tied to the War in Iraq: “… one of the Iraqi men used his new prosthetic hand to slowly write out, in Arabic, a prayer for God to bless America. I am proud that our country remains the hope of the oppressed and the greatest force for good on this Earth.”

Both Clinton and Bush authentically tie a sense of religion to what it means to be American and what America means to the world.

A 1980 campaign ad for Jimmy Carter strikes an overtly religious chord as the commercial pans from the spine of a Bible to a shot of Carter sitting behind his desk.

The message is clear: Carter’s religion is part of his character.

Twenty years earlier, John Kennedy, our first Catholic president, went to great lengths to reassure the public that he could separate his religion from his governing.  Times have changed.

5. Look for a “Book of Mormon” moment

When Romney downplays his religion and speaks vaguely about his love of country and Constitution, he fails to seamlessly link his faith to his patriotism in creating his personal narrative. I’m not convinced that this is a smart strategy for Romney.

He appears to lack a core belief in something, thus we voters lack information to connect with Romney.

What he needs is a “Book of Mormon” moment.  In the Tony Award winning Broadway musical, Elder Price reaffirms his core beliefs via song.

But Romney shouldn’t just sing, as he did with "America the Beautiful" last month.

Romney could start by saying: “I believe that my faith in God led me through the tough times. I believe this because I’ve lived it. I’ve doubted myself as a young missionary, but my faith was my anchor. And, I believe that I would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for my faith, my family and this country.”

Without a statement of his core beliefs linking to his life experience, Romney’s personal narrative is shallow and his civil religion rhetoric will continue to ring hollow.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Birdsong.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: 2012 Election • Mitt Romney • Mormonism • Opinion • Politics

soundoff (440 Responses)
  1. MoninDenver

    @Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son – I agree...that's so true.

    June 14, 2012 at 12:10 am |
  2. Richard "BONEHEAD" Cheney

    Romney is a cult leader. That fact is not alterable. He is not fit to be president for any number of reasons.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • MoninDenver

      I agree with you...he is truly a cult leader and the Devil himself.. We will see come November who the true believers are of Christ, cause they know the difference. There is truth in the statement "Smiling faces tell Lies, they don't tell the Truth"

      June 13, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
  3. JEM

    The problem with Religious minded people is they are too inclined to vote for bigger and bigger government. The more religious a person is, the more likely they are to vote as an enemy to liberty and freedom.

    The War-on-Drugs which has transformed the "Land of the Free" into the worlds "Prison Nation" is a prime example of religious people voting to enhance their religion by attacking liberty with tragic results.

    May 23, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • djusmc7229

      What a rediculous statement. You're clueless.

      May 28, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Your premise is unsubstantiated and flawed

      June 1, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  4. Martin Walters, Seattle

     President Obama is Episcopalian.  

    May 14, 2012 at 2:11 am |
    • Richard "BONEHEAD" Cheney

      Not according to the radical right in the Republican Party. He is a Kenyan and a practicing witch doctor.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  5. intel

    Does the average American know that Mormons believe they are descended from space travellers? Seriously? Is Romney going to skate thru until November without being asked planet Kolob? Google planet Kolob. It is Mormon heaven. You won't believe it.

    May 12, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • JEM

      They know; they just don't care.

      May 23, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  6. Maddy

    As much as I like Romney; and I'm desperately seeking a change in this economy, he seems selfish. He is a very wealthy man and wants to stick to political science of law by seeking out law 2088.

    May 7, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • JEM

      The only hope for any positive change in this economy is Ron Paul if he makes the ballot or the LIBERTARIANS if he does not.
      Romney and Obama have nothing to offer the country but bankruptcy and endless war. They offer nothing for our children but poverty and despair.


      May 23, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  7. NYbywayofTexas

    Ths is going to be one fascinating race. The GOP brought out so much mud on each other, it is going to take years to wash it off of Romney and see who he really is. The economy is slowly growing. I do not know if I can trust anyone with off-shore accounts and the history of firing and pension selling. You cannot throw money at every situation and expect it to be solved. Sure it will be hidden from view(For the moment), but soon the problems are back and worse than before. America is more than a corporation. It is a living, breathing melting pot with tough issues to solve. Don't be dazzled by the $$$'s. \Demand the intellect! We need great political thought and focus.

    April 27, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Alisha

      Political leaders need to learn not to promise what they cannot deliver and voters need to remember the promises, delivered and un-delivered. Pres. Obama promised change like those listed above and that is what got him elected. I like the guy, but many of his election promises were unrealistic hopes....we now need the change, the results. Mitt Romney is about results. Not all the results will be popular but they may be necessary.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:18 am |
    • Maddy

      Romney is clearly the better choice. Anyways, Obama has literally done nothing to help this economy since 2008. His plans have screwed us all over. Romney!! Woo-Hoo!!!!

      May 7, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • JEM

      Voters need to learn to stop voting for politicians who break promises. What is the point of a politician keeping a promise if he/she is going to be reelected anyway?

      Stop voting for corruption.


      May 23, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  8. ?

    Do a wiki search on Parley P. Pratt. He is Mitt Romney's great great grandfather. He was a Mormon church founder who was killed for messing around with another man's wife. and he already had 11 wives. Does that sound like a Christian to you?

    April 26, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • kenhbradshaw

      Do you know that story? The lady was divorced from a violent husband, joined the church, and came to Pratt for protection. We have ex-husbands and boyfriends shooting people today and we don't make the victim (or his descendents) evil. We recognize that problem was with the culprit.

      April 26, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • Alisha

      I hope Romney's faith becomes a big issue because his faith seems to make people happy and well balanced. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints produces excellent families, service minded youth, dedicated parents and civic leaders all working to make our world a better place. UCLA's study on The Spiritual Life of College Students demonstrates that young members of Romney's faith are committed, caring people who know what they believe and live it as well: http://spirituality.ucla.edu/

      May 3, 2012 at 12:16 am |
  9. James P. Banford

    In the discussion concerning the Falkland Islands and Argentina, has anyone given any thought to the islanders themselves?
    Although Argentina claims the islands, they have done nothing to develop them. As Emiliano Zapata said, "La tierra es de los que la trabajan" (The land belongs to those who work it). The islanders are British subjects and would not want to be part of Argentina.

    April 26, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  10. Marcus P Squeezum

    I really dont care if he has six toes and two thumbs........he will be better than Obama!!!!

    April 25, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • danielwalldammit

      ...even if he isn't.

      April 25, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • fintastic

      We americans have such a short attention span. Lets think back to the pile of crap that was handed to Obama when he took office, remember? Remember what the ecomony was like when Bush left office?

      You moron GOP'ers love to spew lies..... get ready to loose.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  11. El Flaco

    So taking a company into bankruptcy, writing off its pension obliagation to its employees and pocketing the pension fund is what you consider a good 'business background?'

    April 25, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • danielwalldammit

      Cause of course wealth always trickles down, ...even when it doesn't.

      April 25, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  12. popseal

    Listening to Blitzer interviewing that smiling Cheshire cat Osteen was sickening. The Biblical illiterate interviewing a pop culture hustler about who is a Christian confirmed my opinion about both of them. It's best to ignore either for the foreseeable future to avoid their con game about Christianity. I received Christ and repented 41 years ago, and what is extant today is a shallow materialistic imitation, wholly something other than Christianity.

    April 24, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  13. Leslie Todd

    We really need to have a national debate ........... OBAMA VS ROMNEY .

    April 23, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
  14. Leslie Todd

    We really need to know more about what difference Mormanism will make if Romney is elected . I know they are into investing in Casinos. what kind of comaradery with Utah will take place ?.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • Alisha

      in reply to Leslie Todd,

      You have the Mormon's confused with the Maluuf family (owners of the Sacramento Kings basketball team), they invest in casinos, Mormons do not.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  15. jon

    Most conservatives do not care about Romney's religion, we are looking for his business background to save our nation from financial ruin. Obama is a runaway train heading for a washed out bridge and unless he's stopped we are all going down with him.

    April 23, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Right. Because the economy has been steadily gaining ground for the past several months, and is doing better than the economy of almost every OTHER nation on Earth.

      Yeah, I'm surely gonna vote for some unknown quant ity whose chief claim to fame is that he's incredibly wealthy and loves firing people.

      April 23, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • Quadg

      The train is already derailed, as the tracks were sold to china for recycling...
      the train driver cant do alot at the moment but hang on..... so who cares who the driver is?

      April 27, 2012 at 5:49 am |
    • JEM

      The only hope for avoiding financial ruin is Ron Paul or the LIBERTARIAN party.
      The mainstream Democrats and Republicans will provide nothing but bankruptcy and endless war followed by poverty and despair. Our children deserve better even if we do not.


      May 23, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • 0rangeW3dge

      if you say so , it must be true

      May 24, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  16. biologixco

    Mittens eats kittens.
    Save the Kitties!
    Don't vote Romney2012!!!

    April 23, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
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