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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. Mike

    Sorry Democrats, you're stuck with Obama aka Carter 2... although Carter might object. Carter would say the Obama is far more Abysmal than he was...

    April 23, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  2. Mike

    What kind of Christian, laughs at failing to produce shovel ready jobs for those waiting for any kind of job, wants higher energy prices on the backs of the poor and middle class, believes in infanticide, closes down the Gulf costing a myriad jobs,
    and has a 20 year spiritual adviser that says, “…not God bless America but God damn America?

    1. Barack “Downgrade Blame and Lie” Obama
    2. No need go any further. Everybody knows it’s “1”…

    April 23, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • biologixco

      Mitt Romney was "SHOVEL READY" to bury our American automobile industry along with MILLIONS of good paying American JOBS! He would have laughed about it too.
      Thats what kind of Christian Mitt Romney is....
      NO CHRISTIAN AT ALL!

      April 23, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • biologixco

      Americans aren't dumb. They can see right thru your Fascist rants.
      Mittens is goin' down November 6, 2012

      April 23, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Mike

      Let GM declare bankruptcy and reorganize. That's what it was designed to do. to straighten out the bad business polices, cut the fat and then come out again.... no tax payer's bailout that just promotes corruption and bad business policies.

      Government in business is bad government and bad business...

      April 23, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  3. biologixco

    Thank God, President Obama led our great country out of the wasteland of the BUSH DEPRESSION.
    Thank God, President Obama took out Bin Laden
    Thank God for President Obama.
    Our national hero.

    April 23, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Mike

      What was the cause of our current economic meltdown?
      CNN Money article:
      The panel heard from former Fannie chief executives Daniel Mudd and Franklin Raines; former Freddie Mac CEOs Richard Syron and Leland Brendsel; a former Fannie Mae chief credit officer.

      Fannie and Freddie, publicly traded but federally backed companies, control or guarantee about $5 trillion in mortgage loans. They purchase large amounts of home loans, bundle them together and divide them into securities that can be sold to investors.
      The companies, which were taken under federal control in September, have drawn criticism for taking on too much risk, exacerbating the credit crisis when the housing market declined.

      April 23, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
      • biologixco

        Clinton left Bush with a surplus and he wheedled and whittled it down to a DEFICIT. With little giveaways like unfunded Medicare programs, tax breaks for millionaires, unnecessary wars..etc etc. You argument is baseless.

        April 23, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Leo

      We need to look at BOTH of these guys, remember Obama calls the Koran "HOLY" yet it claims that God has no son,

      1 John 2:22
      Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.

      Beware there are many that are calling Obama the Saviour!! Even the Muslims!!

      April 23, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
      • biologixco

        Big O is Christian.
        Mitt Romney is a HIGH PRIEST of a CULT!

        April 23, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  4. biologixco

    Mitt Romney is a HIGH PRIEST and ELDER of a cult known as mormonism
    America, would you EVER elect a CULT LEADER to be POTUS?
    NEVER!

    April 23, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  5. Mike

    To vote for Obama once is forgivable if you weren't paying attention and listened only to the leftist mainstream media of collusion who jumped in bed with Obama giving him 24/7 info commercials (so much for campaign finance reform)

    But if you vote for him again you have to be deaf dumb and blind with a minimal IQ......
    Hell that describes perfectly the typical Obama voter, including the ones that are just standing in line for Obama money...

    April 23, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • biologixco

      Once America finds our about Planet Kolob, magic underwear and the WHITE HORSE PROPHECY,
      Mittens is TOAST!

      April 23, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  6. biologixco

    Willard (MITT) Romney laughs at firing thousands of American workers.
    Making fun of the plight of his fellow man?
    What kind of Christian man does that?
    a. A mormon
    b. no Christian at all
    c. no man at all
    d. All of the above
    Answer is D. ALL OF THE ABOVE!

    April 23, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  7. Mike

    Yes, 5+ years of a Democrat controlled congress and Obama for 3+ years with at times a super majority that could have passed anything, did Nothing ....5 years of Abysmal failure... Hell, the Democrats can't even do a budget....outrageous incompetence
    We need new president......Now!!!!!

    April 23, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • biologixco

      Thank God, President Obama led our great country out of the wasteland of the BUSH DEPRESSION.
      Thank God, President Obama took out BinLaden
      Thank God for President Obama.
      Our national hero.

      April 23, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • fintastic

      Hey Mike, what about your buddy Bush? Budget you say? .... step away fropm the pipe Mike.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  8. biologixco

    Romney is a fat cat loser that hates the common man

    April 23, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • biologixco

      And SECRET SWISS BANK ACCOUNTS to cheat on his taxes!

      April 23, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  9. Mike

    Romney has saved many savable businesses and grew them without tax payers money and employed thousands of Americans who pay lots of taxes..
    Obama just flushes trillions down the drain on a failed stimulus and playing amateur venture capitalist with tax payers money on failed green debacles....

    Romney a success, Obama a failure.......

    April 23, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • biologixco

      you took one too many spins in the Mormonian Brainwasher!

      April 23, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  10. Mike

    Obama, "...you can judge me by the company I keep"
    Yes Obama, soros, van jones, jarrett, sterns, sunstein, ayres, dorhn, rev wright, black panthers, media matters (hate group) ........wow the American Communist party is supporting Obama in 2012...
    Yes Obama, we are...

    April 23, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • biologixco

      Read the White Horse Prophecy.
      Then VOTE NO to Romney2012

      April 23, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Leo

      You fail to mention inviting the Muslim Brotherhood reps to the white house. Funny how they complain about Romney and women, yet what about all the Egyptian women once sharia law gets put into action!!

      April 23, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • 0rangeW3dge

      you fail to mention inviting the Taliban to the White House by GW Bush, but the point is ALL diplomats from ALL government go to the White House.

      May 24, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  11. Mike

    Yes, Romney has a great American story of business success and a man who saved effective businesses and employed thousands all who pay a lot of taxes.... a Great America Success..... Damn the liberals hate that .....that's why they vote for failure.....

    April 23, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • biologixco

      He laughs at firing thousands of American workers.
      Making fun of the plight of his fellow man?
      What kind of Christian man does that?
      a. A mormon
      b. no Christian at all
      c. no man at all
      d. All of the above
      Answer is D. ALL OF THE ABOVE!

      April 23, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Mike

      Laughter??? You lie

      The only laughter on video is Obama chuckling at his failure to create "Shovel Ready Jobs"

      What kind of Christian is that who believes in infanticide and who's 20 year spiritual adviser says, "....not God bless America but God damn America"

      April 23, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  12. Mike

    Romney has a great American story of business success and a man who saved effective businesses and employed thousands all who pay a lot of taxes.... a Great America Success..... Damn the liberals hate that .....that's why they vote for failure.....

    April 23, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • biologixco

      You forgot MITT"S SECRET Swiss bank accounts to cheat on his US taxes!

      April 23, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  13. biologixco

    Load the dog atop the car!
    Planet Kolob ain't too far,
    Poor little pooch up top the rooof~~~?
    That's why mormons are so aloof!
    (Like my little Romney spoof?)
    Republicans for Obama2012!

    April 22, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
    • biologixco

      Im gonna put my magic mormon undies on and go out in my yard, run in circles and see if I can spot my beloved planet Kolob in the clear night sky. Wheeeeee!

      April 22, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • Mike

      Obama eats dog meat.....

      April 23, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
      • biologixco

        Maybe, but Mitt Romney slaughtered the dog and has its blood all over his hands

        April 23, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Mike

      Obama kills jobs and eats dogs

      April 23, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
      • biologixco

        Mittens eats kittens!

        April 23, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • biologixco

      Mittens eats kittens
      Save the kitties
      Dont vote Romney 2012!

      April 23, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  14. biologixco

    Once America gets wind of the WHITE HORSE PROPHESY.
    And the fact that Mitt Romney prays to Kolob and wears magic underwear,
    HE's TOAST!
    (haha, magic underwear. What a maroon.)

    April 22, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
    • mikstov33

      You want a prophesy?Here's one for you. Mitt Romney will not win this election.Whoever wins the 2016 race will buy into the peace accord that WILL be fashioned in 2014,praised by Obama.This will follow the short war most likely between Iran and Israel.This accord will give final borders to Israel,as prescribed by the Jewish bible.In return, the state of Israel will acknowledge that the Dome of the Rock is a Holy site,and agree to use it as their Temple,forgoing building anything else on that site.By 2018,the author of the accord,the Antichrist will declare himself as the Savior and Messiah of Israel,and summarily sacrifice the two witnessess of Revelation,thus commiting the abomination that makes desolate.Sound good?

      April 22, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
      • biologixco

        Sounds like a winner to me!

        April 22, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Works for me too! Where do I sign up?

      April 23, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  15. beau

    So the Republicans are going to settle on an east coast, elite, millionaire from an aristocratic family? What is his experience that will make him a successful Conservative President?
    1. He fires people, lays off employees, and outsources jobs while pocketing the pension funds of those same employees.
    2. He is comfortable in an upper class setting. After all, America IS the upper class, isn't it? The little people, like you and I, are not really very important. People of Romney's class and background see us as livestock that can understand English.
    3. He does not care if Americans suffer. He has made lots of them suffer so far in his life. He's made of tough stuff. No weepy compassion will ever cloud his judgment.
    4. He knows how to destroy corporations and sell off their assets. He could use those skills to destroy the federal government, a stated goal of Conservatism
    5. After the Romney Administration is over in 2016 or 2018, Conservatives will say, "Hey, you can't blame us for the disastrous Romney Administration. He wasn't a TRUE Conservative. What we need is a TRUE Conservative like Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum … or maybe Senator Palin."

    April 22, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  16. AGuest9

    The press has made an issue of this. The man has held office for how many years without his Mormanism being an issue? I personally wouldn't vote for him, but it certainly has nothing to do with his poor choice of "beliefs".

    April 21, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • AGuest9

      "Mormonism "

      April 21, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • biologixco

      His beliefs have EVERYTHING to do with this!
      Google: The WHITE HORSE PROPHECY.
      Just say NO to MItt Romney2012!

      April 22, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
  17. jon

    Romney does not represent "Americas Faith". He represents Americans return to solvency and the return of the thing that drives our economy...small business. Democrats what to make this about class, race and wealth redistribution and that is the path to ruin.

    April 21, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  18. Robert Burns

    What is forgotten about our countries founding is that the protections of "religious freedom" sprang from the desire to separate from the tyranny of the Church of England, not because they were inherently Christian but not the right kind of Christian. Evangelicals today are becoming tyrannical force in our country. They create the problem as a way to proselytize and worse to keep their minions in line. When our country was founded, very few people were church goers, they were passive Christians.
    There is no war on Christianity, it is a creation for political gain.

    April 20, 2012 at 3:16 am |
    • jon

      ...and none of them were socialists, nor would they support wealth redistribution.

      April 21, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  19. guyfromla

    His faith allowed him to dodge the draft!!!

    April 19, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • jon

      Tell us oh learned one...how did Bill CLinton dodge the draft?

      April 21, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • biologixco

      MITT ROMNEY WAS A DRAFT DODGING SNAKE!

      April 22, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
  20. guyfromla

    Yea, his faith allowed him to dodge the draft.

    April 19, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Mike

      No military service for the incompetent Obama

      April 23, 2012 at 4:04 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.