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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. augustghost

    Romney is a pjhony pandering snake charmer who has a hidden agenda...he's NOT getting my vote

    April 19, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  2. Dave

    Republicans NEED the southern, white evangelical vote to win, everyone knows this, especially the republican party, and they're simply not going to come out to vote for a Mormon in enough numbers to win.

    If as many as 25% of americans don't think Obama is a christian, fine, but what percentage of americans think Romney isn't a christian? 90+%? This country is probably decades from electing an openly non-christian president, what is the republican party thinking? We'll have a hispanic, maybe even asian, president before a non-christian one.

    Ask any evangelical if Mormons are Christians. Only Mormons think they're christians, no one else does. Ask christians to describe the mormon faith. You'll get an answer somewhere in the range between "perversion of christianity" and "cult", and there's nothing nice inbetween. Christians who believe the bible is 100% true, simply won't accept any followers of a book about "The continuing adventures of Jesus".

    Even Democrats aren't stupid enough to put forward a Mormon for their nominee. I'm an atheist and I know this, why pretend this country is different than it is?

    April 18, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Andre

      Well said, Dave.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  3. Simeon Namore

    If a Roman Catholic who openly professes hostility toward the separation of church and state can win the state of Alabama, then anything is possible, I suppose. Mittens, however, is not just any Mormon–far from it. He is Mormon royalty. He smiles and defers to the church fathers who frown and defer. In the end all is just as mysterious as it began. You will never get straight answers from Mittens about the Mormons because were he to answer any of them truthfully, he would enjoy no support from anyone other than the Mormons. Do the Lutherans and the Methodists have political agenda? Perhaps. But I can guarantee you they don't seek its fulfillment more actively than the Mormons. If you don't believe me, read the Prophet's own words.

    April 17, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  4. reason

    The gods of all organized religions, if true, would all be horribly unjust and evil deities to send billions of people to eternal suffering for choosing the wrong one or being born in the wrong place. Looking at organized religion objectively, they are myths from iron age societies that were trying to explain the world, and there is virtually no chance any one is truth.

    Rationally speaking if there is a just god and an afterlife, you will be judged on how you live your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4or90cmyhk

    April 16, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  5. mike

    To the evangelical christain,God as revealed by JESUS is to be represented in all decisions and actions.Being imperfect ,this is not easily done.However,sometimes the WORD is clear.Mormonism does not accept the absolute authority of the BIBLE,neither does it accepts Jesus as LORD and SAVIOR.This leads to the belief that the spirit behind mormonisn is Satan.Asking an evangelical to pledge allegiance to a leader who get his spiritual guidance and power from SATAN is rejecting the guidance and protection of the HOLY SPIRIT.This is the fudamental of anyone but Romney.Had the leaders of the Right spoke up ,the republican party would not be in this situation.No amount of displeasure with Obama will get the evangelicals to abandon CHRIST for Romney's spiritual guidance and protection.

    April 15, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  6. govspy

    I don't want any overly religious person being my President. We've had too much religion (or people pretending to have faith) in the White House, as in the Bush administration. We're not afraid of Christianity, or Mormonism. We're afraid of the type of politician who has no problem USING a religion to sway voters. These politicians don't even show any semblance of actually caring about following a faith, or only as much as it takes to convince the easily duped to say "Oooh, he's a CHRISTIAN" or whatever, not like that evil old 'Bama.

    If you really, really follow the tenets of a Christian faith, how the heck do you end up filthy rich? How do you make millions off of buying up companies and firing people? Doesn't seem very Christ-like to me. I'm not saying to be as rich as Romney you have to be a bad person, but don't tell me how pious you are when you make a fortune off of making so many people unemployed. "Let Detroit go bankrupt," indeed.

    If you fall for this guy's religious BS, you deserve the country that we'll get in the aftermath. If you think Obama is worse for this country than Romney, well, I'll see you in four years, and you tell me how good you're doing then.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  7. jim steele

    "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.'" This is ridiculous. Americans aren't ignorant about mormons, we're just offended by their systematic bigotry.

    April 13, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • chanda w

      Romney is not a christian...........he does not believe in Jesus Christ as our savior. So why would christian leaders encourage other believers in Christ to vote for this man? President Obama has identified himself as a believer of Jesus, yet he is called a liar...........as if he doesn't fit the profile of an American Christian. God is love and hate is ignorance.
      God bless President Obama.

      April 14, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Mitsy

      Even some Mormons don't know much about their own history. Joseph Smith was a delusional guy. He was as much a prophet as Jim Jones was. Taking his friends' wives was only part of his selfish agenda. He took parts of the Bible & used in the Book of Mormon. You can go online & learn a lot about this group. They are not what I call a Christian group, however, many of the people are good & honest and don't realize what they are really involved in. I still say most fundamentalist (or even liberal Christians) would never consider voting for him.

      April 16, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  8. martog

    Top Ten Signs You're a Christian
    10 – You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.
    9 – You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.
    8 – You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.
    7 – Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Allah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!
    6 – You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.
    5 – You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.
    4 – You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs – though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."
    3 – While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christianity.
    2 – You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.
    1 – You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history – but still call yourself a Christian.

    April 12, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Lover of Jesus and his message, not his fan club. I like Buddha and the Jewish concept of "return" too. I like to look at many sources of spiritual wisdom and allow them to enrich me without irrational paranoia and fear...yet spiritually aware....because

      Amen.

      April 15, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Mister Jones

      The problem is that most Christians can not comprehend this post ...

      April 19, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  9. In 1978, the Lord came to His prophet...

    ...And informed him the He has changed His mind about Black People. Oh, and He changed His mind about polygamy too, like, 100 years before changing His mind about Black Poople.

    April 11, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
  10. pastmorm

    If you're a mormon:

    You believe in a man named Joseph Smith that declared himself a general against the American Government and then said he would create a Theocratic Monarchy with himself at its head.

    You also believe in a man named Joseph Smith that married a 14 year old girl – even though he already had plural wives – because he told the child's family they would receive instant eternal salvation if they gave her to him (Smith).

    You also believe in becoming a god after this life if you have committed to and followed all of your temple rituals sincerely and without deviance.

    You also believe that anyone that is not a mormon will NOT be allow to be with Jesus Christ or God, no matter how good they are, if they do not accept your gospel (religion) to be the only true church. For example. Mother Teresa will not be in heaven if she does not accept a posthumous baptism in the after life.

    You also believe that you must take on secret temple names, wear garments (underwear) that has secret symbols that are used in secret rituals in the temple as well as a blood oath that began in 1843, but ended in 1990 when there was a general uproar amongst non-mormons that found out about this particular ritual.

    You also believe Blacks and Native Americans were marked with dark skin for being evil in the pre-life or because they just displeased god.

    You believe that once you are a god of your own world, you with your heavenly wife will create spirit children that will then fill the earthly bodies of human on your own particular planet that you rule over...meaning that you are already (in certain terms) better than the God that created this planet.

    You do believe that Lucifer and Jesus were and are brothers.

    April 11, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Webnix

      pastnorm

      Really!! What a hapless, ignorant bombthrower. You need an invite to the real world brother! If all evangelical's feel the way you do then I don't care to know em. Don't think Jesus would agree with you either!

      April 11, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Dave

      The story is a little more complicated than what you are presenting. We believe Joseph Smith was a prophet like those in the past. If polygamy is a sin, Joseph Smith was in the company of Abraham and others in the Bible. Mormons believe all can be saved – even those who are not Mormons. Garments are mentioned in the Bible. See 2 Nephi 26:33 regarding how blacks are viewed in the Book of Mormon (equal to others).

      April 11, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Lynn Johnson

      You obviously know almost nothing about Mormonism. Like others who go to false sources you claim that Joseph Smith married a 14 year old girl – this is false – what is your source?

      You say that Mormons claim that they are they are the only ones who will be with God and Christ after this life – you do not understand the plan of salvation taught by the LDS – it inclues all who accept the gospel regardless of who they are – period!

      Everything else pretty much shows that you do not believe in revelation – that is the basis of Mormonism, so these teachings you castigate are just your disbelief – so what's the point? I for one have a deep and abiding testimony of these things – I am sorry you don't have the same...

      The rest is not worth responding to.

      April 16, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
    • biologixco

      Funny how the LDS "goon squad" chimes in when someone says something that might portray the mormon "church" in an unflattering light.
      Refute + dispute. Call it a lie! Never let them have the last word.
      They act like a cult.
      Probably because they are!

      April 22, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
  11. beau

    You guys just don't get it mormonism is a cult, an no god loving and god fearing people from the south would vote for him. IS WHO A CHRISTIAN? By Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., Georgia State University I suppose it was inevitable that the evangelical push-back within the Republican Party would eventually make Mormonism an issue, no matter how hard the Republican establishment tries to make it go away. And now ...

    April 9, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • Mike

      Beau,

      Pardon me but your ignorance is showing. What defines a cult? What defines a Christian?
      By definition any religion is a cult. Any one who follows Christ is a Christian.
      I'd suggest you not let your ignorance show so blatantly and educate yourself before calling any group one thing or another.
      Just my opinion, but it's amazing what rhetoric people spew with no understanding of what they speak.

      April 10, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • fintastic

      "Just my opinion, but it's amazing what rhetoric people spew with no understanding of what they speak."

      That describes you comments about Obama to the letter Mike the Moron

      June 6, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  12. ollie2

    What do you mean "compensate for being a mormon!" this is so stupid that all you think that just because he's a mormon you think he'll make a terrible president. i'm with Tranqwill on this one. You guys all think that just because he's mormon he's the automatic bad choice, but you never complain about other people being catholic or jewish. I bet that if mitt wasn't mormon, you'd all think he was the perfect canidate. if you are going to critsize him about it, at least look into him and others in lds religion. religion should not be the first thing people look at when they judge people!

    April 8, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  13. tranqwill

    Mittney is exactly what we need to help lead this country back to prosperity and respectability, regardless of how some are "afraid" of the Mormon faith. To those I say this, religion is a manmade framework that is intended to support an individuals personal beliefs in God. Don't be afraid but enlighten yourselves about the Mormon religion. That being said, I hope he picks either Mitch Daniels or Mike Huckabee for the VP!

    Happy Easter all 🙂

    April 7, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
  14. Tanner

    Very good points. Thank you, Mr. Birdsong.

    April 7, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  15. jim

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Trancend the world illusion on enslavement. The world denounces truth. Accepting Jesus will result in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it but will not beable to clealy explain it to anyone else. Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you. Currently your constructing your own path that suits your sin lifestyle. Look closely at the economy, Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food . Just think if you can find a truth you can take with you in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life. You will be forgotten history will repeat iteslf, the greates minds knowledge fates or is eventually plagerzed, your gooddeeds are forgotten. your teachings are forgotten or mutated, your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . Trancend you ego and free yourself from the dominion of satan. Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence. Faith above reason in Jesus Christ. Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth. Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment. You don't get what you want you get what you are in christ. I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .
    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?
    Down is up. Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    April 5, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Joe

      You must believe that God is a dimwit. Talk of egos. Why in the world would the most omniscient being in the universe want to even have a conversation with a human? Doesn't he have anything better to do? Millions of people are praying every day, and millions of prayers go unanswered. Why do you think that God would want to hear the same prayer every day from billions of people into eternity? Anyone with a nagging wife could tell you how tedious that would be.Wouldn't he rather read a book? Why do you think that God would stoop so low as to deny an otherwise clean living person admittance to heaven, because that person's minister didn't have as good a sales pitch as the heaven bound person?

      And if you do get to Heaven, what do you do when there? Hang around? You can't play chess or any other game, because you would not be permitted to lose (after all you are a chosen one.)

      Speaking of the Bible. What a bunch of nonsense. Fairy tales make more sense. There have been so many authors, and so many interpretations, that the original authors wouldn't recognize their work? Inspired by God? Please, he could reach more people in an hour with a convincing text message.

      Now I'm not an atheist. I do believe there is intelligence far greater than that on Earth. After all, if 21st century man appeared in biblical times he would appear to many to be a deity. There are probably thousands of inhabited worlds in the universe millions of years ahead of us.

      Anyway, keep thinking.

      April 6, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
  16. augustghost

    GOP= God's Only Prank

    April 4, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Simeon Namore

      Good–but God's Oily Pimps is still my favorite.

      April 17, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  17. augustghost

    Anyone who is overly religious is usually nuts

    April 4, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  18. FreedomFromReligion

    I believe that jesus, the easter bunny, and santa claus are all the same person...a figment of one's imagination. It is very sad that people put the "faith" in something completely imaginary. One "imaginary" god is just as good(or bad) as the next. Wake up, people...it all made up. Every bit of it. Can't put it simpler than that!

    April 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  19. Yaweh

    All moot arguments. The GOP had G-O-D'd itself into the D-O-G House. OBAMA ROCKS!!

    April 3, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  20. matt in nw

    Does the Pesident run a country or a religion? If its a country then a man's religion or lack there of, come in dead last in determining factors for who should be at the helm. More important by far are:

    Restoring Manufacturing, stopping the mergers ..how in the world can small/med businesses hope to compete with mega corps.
    PROTECT the AMERICAN WORKER.... Tariff all goods manufactured elsewhere, and implement tax breaks for companies that employ most of their workforce here...and tax penalties for those that are American in name only now.

    and please teach math and real science in our schools- we are becoming a laughing stock!!

    Is Mitt able or willing to get us back on track? or is Obama the better choice – thats all that should matter.

    April 3, 2012 at 12:00 am |
    • FreedomFromReligion

      I agree with you whole heartedly. Religion is not even close to what is reality, and science and mathematics are certainly more beneficial. Therefore, light houses are more useful than churches. And we want religion to be in our educational system? We are becoming pathetic.

      April 3, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • LEvErAgE

      Stopping the Mergers? Small business owners elect to sell their businesses to large corporations for payouts.

      April 18, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
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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.