home
RSS
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. …”

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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.”

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

“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. James

    I'm not a fan of pop-Christianity. To me, one of Romney's strongest points is that he is not one of that crowd. I would rather have a president of a minority religion, who is more likely to protect the religious rights of minorities, than a you-will-all-bow-down-and-worship-when-the-music-plays pop-Christian zealot.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
  2. jake

    The bottom line is romney is a mormon NOT A CHRISTIAN. I will not vote to put him in the white house.

    April 2, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  3. Devon

    No matter how many time YaLL tabby nackles rebut, YaLL still cant answer the simple Questionof why you racist still dont have a BROTHER all up in that Elder CULT??? Can a Brother get all up in that elder cult? Why Heavens no. Why not? CAUS YOUR BLACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

    April 1, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  4. What Goes Around Comes Around

    So the Bible has been made null and void by the Book of Mormon? What's to stop some another self-serving ego-maniac from concocting another book that supersedes the Book of Mormon? What goes around comes around.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Just Asking

      Why did the LDS Church dump the Bible?

      March 31, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • gene1o

      not only mormons, but almost every sect of xtianity since constintine has been a civil religion; that is, a support for whatever sadistic policy of the government has been practiced. xtianity has become a joke, with regard to spirituality and morality. so burn incense to ceasar, and go to "church", and get to walk the streets of gold, doing things forever that you hate to do at all now. or – you could try following jesus, and not be concerned with tomorrow, or with rewards.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • LEvErAgE

      Mormons believe in both the King James Bible and the Book of Mormon.

      April 18, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  5. Batter Up

    Mormonism is basically Polytheistic through and through. Mormons can't justify that through the Bible so they're forced to bring in their own contrived Book of Mormon. This would be totally hilarious if it wasn't so tragic.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Batter Up

      Islam is basically Arian through and through. It can't justify that through the Bible so they're forced to bring in their own contrived Qur'an. This would be totally hilarious if it wasn't so tragic.

      March 31, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Joe Shmoe

      @Erik, you're very opinionated. What do you have to say about Batter Up’s statements?

      March 31, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Erik

      If by polytheism we believe that Jesus is God (diety) and that he is the Son of GOD the Father, ie a different being that yes, I guess we are. This idea is Biblical. The 4th century Trinity, not so much. It's called the Godhead.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:36 am |
  6. King Kolob

    Woohoo! Vote for Romeny and there will be enough Kooky-Kolob Kool-Aid and Kolob Whacky Tobacky for you and all of your wives!

    March 31, 2012 at 12:18 am |
  7. Celeste Shelley

    Mormons are usually nice people who strive to follow the Savior. They serve unpaid and they help many non Mormons. They believe in the Bible and also the Book of Mormon as scripture. Look them up at LDS.org.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • King Kolob

      Keep drinking the Kolob Kool-Aid...

      March 31, 2012 at 12:19 am |
  8. Truman Angel

    Civil religion? Quick history lesson. Mormons, (I grew up as one) believe that Joseph Smith was a profit. Smith foresaw the Cilvil War. Because America was evil. Polygamy and slavery were laws of the True God, but America branded them the "twin pillars of barbarism". Smith and the early Mormons hated America. They printed their own money, made their own laws, had their own army and police. On arriving in Utah, (after leaving America because they hated it) they put up "liberty poles", empty flag poles proving they now had no country. Mormons totally embrace Ronald Reagan when he said "the government is not the solution, it's the problem". If it were not for the government and LAWS there would still be slaves, men with 29 wives, secret killings and business people able to steal your money with no fear of prosecution. And you want this running the government????? Really????

    March 30, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Erik

      Mostly distorted info. I don't think it's fair to compared the situations that are 170 years apart. America today is not that same as in 1840. Sine you where once a member of the LDS church, can you not think pf a reason that the Mormons not not have liked the US.............think extermination order, murder of the Prophet, US Army being sent to crush the non-existent Mormon rebellion

      March 30, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • LEvErAgE

      You'd run away too if they were trying to kill you

      April 18, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  9. WachetAuf

    The author suggests that Mr. Romney declare that his faith has led him through the tough times. Such a declaration will not help him because it cannot work. It would become the joke of our times. Assuming that there have been tough times, it is money which has led him.

    March 30, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  10. c0astalgreens

    A fair God does not discriminate any religion, don't you all think so ? All religions has one common denominator and that is faith in the existence of a God, and all should unite based on this ground. All religions should not be divided based on differing interpretations because we are all imperfect humans whose understanding of God can differ in many ways. What really matters is all religious people have faith in a Creator whom they love and thank.

    March 30, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  11. Matt

    I don't oppose a Mormon because I don't understand their religion, I attended a Mormon church for quite a while when I was a younger man, trying to decide where I belonged religiously.

    The conclusion I came to – based on their own teachings – is that they are a cult, unwilling to answer questions until you're brainwashed, and it's because many of the answers are scary. The Lutheran church I ended up joining, by contrast, was enthusiastic in answering questions, and always referred to the Bible for their answers. Mormons consider the Book of Mormon on par with the Bible, but the Book of Mormon is clearly the work of a con artist, not of God.

    No way I could vote for someone who fell for that.

    March 29, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • The Real Tom Paine

      I attended an LDS ward for a long time as well, looking for answers to see if I belonged there. The tipping point for me was the day I heard a young man speak who earned a nice side living playing the rogan at other churches: he said, " Don't these people know that what they are doing is wrong?" As I looked around, I saw people nodding in agreement: not one saw the hypocrisy in that statement or was will to admit it, especially in light of all the stories you heard about how the LDS were persecuted and discriminated against, not to mention that the Church's own articles of faith say how they will respect the laws of countries and other faiths. They demand tolerance, but don't teach it themselves. This young man had no problem taking money from non-members, but scorned their beliefs when the doors are closed and their backs were turned. I walked away, and never regretted my decision.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • c0astalgreens

      It still is all about God.

      March 30, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Erik

      Somehow I have a hard time with your explanation. Any member of the church will answer any question.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  12. mikstov33

    I live in Utah and yes this is a "quirky" place.But then again so is the Southern Baptist Bible Belt, the California Scientologist, the Detroit Muslims(a new sports team,perhaps?) or any other religion that claims to be the only one with any resemblance of truth.Only the Almighty knows.
    When are the good citizens of this country going to actually elect someone for their ability to lead and not for the various faults that are destined to become the topic of discussion on the cable news outlets,internet chat sites,and other sundry "think tanks" that tend to form our opinions FOR us? It is way past the time to vote for a candidate only because it "feels good" and may be historic.

    March 29, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  13. Devon

    You tabby nackles are SEVERLY brainwashed. Can a brother get all up in that Quarom? Why heavens no. Why not??? Cause their BLACK. You guys are so FU-- UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    March 29, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Erik

      What is your point? In English this time please.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  14. Barry G.

    Mitt,

    The Jesus we follow taught that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle that for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

    What does your religion teach about this?

    And Rick and Newt, do you believe this?

    I get the impression that you guys believe that the one with the most money is the closest to God.

    March 28, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • BOB

      Barry, Jesus did say that, but don't take it out of context. It doesn't say that rich people are bad or can't get into heaven. A rich person accepts salvation the same way you and I do. By accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior and repenting of sins. btw...I haven't heard or seen any of the candidates appear that they are closer to God due to money. I think you may be attacking a little bit. On the flip side....I hope that they have accepted Jesus as their Savior. Yes, their money could be a stumbling block.

      March 29, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • History Bear

      Your statement about jesus is one of the glaring problems I have with Christianity- its' hyprocisy, though to be fair all organized religions are hyprocitical to one degree or another. Christians seem to value the worth of a person as to how well off he is economically and all churches spend an inordinate amount of time grabbing money. Guess you are all going to hell.

      March 29, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  15. BOB

    By the way ... Jesus came to fulfill the law and to fulfill the prophecy. The head of the church is Jesus Christ not a prophet

    March 28, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  16. BOB

    Mormons are not Christians. It is impossible for them to be. They would have to believe that Jesus Christ is in fact God. He has been since the beginning. He was with God in the very beginning and He was God from the Beginning. Without Jesus being God we have no salvation. Christians are followers of Christ and learners and disciples of Jesus. I love the people of the Mormon religion, but they get it wrong. They just do

    March 28, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Erik

      Everything you said is exactly what we believe. Jesus is God. Jesus is the son the GOD the Father. We know that salvation comes through Jesus. So yes, we are Christians by your own definition.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Batter Up

      Erik, Mormonism is basically Polytheistic through and through. It can't justify that through the Bible so they're forced to bring in their own contrived Book of Mormon. This would be totally hilarious if it wasn't so tragic.

      March 31, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • Erik

      All right Batter Up, here is the simple explanation solely based on the Bible.We know that Christ (Word) was God (Diety) but so is His (and our) Father in Heaven. They are separate individuals. The Bible confirms this. When Jesus was baptized, It was his Father that confirmed that he was well pleased. Did Christ not state that his Father was greater than himself. If they were the same one could not be greater than the other. In Gethsemane didn't Christ plead with the Father to "remove this cup, but not as I wilt but as though wilt" 2 "wills" sounds like 2 individuals. There are so many more but this should suffice.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:42 am |
    • LEvErAgE

      Erik is right. By your definition Mormons are Christians. The idea of the trinity was drafted by councils in an effort to unify the Roman empire more than two hundred years after the death of Christ.

      April 18, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  17. Will

    The hate I see towards members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or Mormons, if you must say it, comes from those not wanting to learn about us. We believe in Christ and the Book of Mormon is a second witness of Christ which comes from the native Americans of ancient times. We can't convince the whole world what we believe and feel we don't need to. The Bible teaches the Holy Ghost will teach you all things and bring them unto your remembrance (John 14:26). The Book of Mormon is the fruit of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I encourage those critics out there to open their hearts and truly study this book and the Prophet before you give fire to your hate.

    March 27, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  18. debra gallehawk

    Mormons are Cult ! period !

    March 25, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Jordan

      Technically that was an exclamation point and not a period. Next, the dictionary defines a "cult" as, "a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies." Under this definition, all religions are "cults". Finally, just because you are saturated with something at "anti-cult" seminars or similar gatherings which foment fear, misunderstanding, and hate of other people and beliefs does not make your claim true, inspiring, or otherwise persuade me to agree. It only encourages me to learn more about the object of your narrow-minded and unrelenting opinion.

      March 27, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • WachetAuf

      To Jordan,

      Yes, you are correct. Even Christianity is a personality cult. It worships the person, a baby who was born to a virgin and a man who was put to death on a cross. It worships its charismatic priests. And, it must be that way because the flock lacks the ability to "connect" with God and they rely on the leaders to do it for them. People who may come closest to that direct connection with god are likely to admit their frailty and doubt. Cults do not admit to doubt. Cults cannot admit to doubt. It would destroy them. They would call it heresy and eject anyone who expresses doubt.

      March 30, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  19. samuel

    THE REAL TRUE PROPHET BACKED UP AND VINDICATED BYE GOD IN THIS HOUR WAS WILLIAM MARION BRANHAM THEY PHOTO GRAPHED HIM THE PILLAR OF FIRE WAS OVER HIS HEAD FLAMING . THIS PHOTO IS KEPT IN THE WHITE HOUSE RELIGIOUS HALL OF FAME ARCHIVES . NOW HE IS A PROPHET LIKE PAUL FOR SURE .BUT THE MAINSTREAM RELIGIONS ALWAYS KILL THE PROPHETS AND NEVER EXCEPT THEM , SAME THING TODAY THEY ARE BLINDED BY THEIR DENOMINATIONAL DOCTRINES FROM SEEING THE WORD COME TO PASS . OH BRAN HAM WAS THE FULFILLMENT OF MALACHI CHP 4 AND VINDICATED BYE GOD TO BE SO .

    March 25, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Andy

      That is all fine and dandy since I am agnostic and find both the Mormon and other various Christian interpretation of who is god wrong and flawed just like your understanding of the English language.

      March 25, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  20. samuel

    PEOPLE CAN NOT TELL A TRUE PROPHET FROM A FALSE PROPHET BECAUSE THEY HAVE NO UNDERSTANDING OF BIBLICAL GOD BACKED UP VINDICATION . THEY DO NOT UNDERSTAND DUET CHAP 18 , THEY DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE APOSTLE PAUL WHO WAS VINDICATED BY GOD BEFORE THE PEOPLE .THEY ALSO FAIL TO SEE GODS PROPHETS ARE ALWAYS FORETOLD AND WRITTEN OF IN THE SCRIPTURES BEFORE THEY COME ON THE SEEN . THERE IS NO ANGEL CALLED MORONI IN THE BIBLE FOR A START JOHN THE BAPTIST IT WAS WRITTEN OF HIM BEFORE HE COME ON THE SEEN OF HUMAN LIFE . AND NO PROPHET OF GOD WOULD ADD TWO OR TAKE FROM GODS WORD NOR DISAGREE WITH THE APOSTLE PAUL . PAUL SAID YOU THINK YOUR A PROPHET LET HIM ACKNOWLEDGE THE THINS I WRIGHT ARE THE COMMANDMENTS OF THE LORD SEE PROPHET LIKE MOSES PAUL WAS THE PILLAR OF FIRE AND ALL .SO GO TAKE A HIKE JOE SMITH . I DO HOPE THIS HELPS SOME .

    March 25, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Simeon Namore

      Sam, you're a nut. Get back on the meds.

      March 27, 2012 at 12:06 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Advertisement
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.