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Can Mitt Romney’s evangelical ambassador seal the deal before Election Day?
Mark DeMoss and Mitt Romney at Liberty University, where Romney delivered the commencement address in May.
September 1st, 2012
10:00 PM ET

Can Mitt Romney’s evangelical ambassador seal the deal before Election Day?

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

Tampa, Florida (CNN) – The task of selling a Mormon presidential candidate to evangelical America has fallen to a public relations man who’s not even getting paid for what may be the toughest sales job of his career.

For six years, Mark DeMoss has served as Mitt Romney’s unofficial evangelical ambassador, making the case that born-again Christians should help elect the first Mormon to the White House.

It has often been a lonely job.

During this year’s primaries, DeMoss found himself addressing audiences of evangelical leaders in which nearly everyone was rooting for another candidate: Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry – anybody but Romney.

“It would have been tough for anyone other than Mark,” says Richard Land, the public policy chief for the Southern Baptist Convention, remembering how DeMoss performed in one hostile setting last January. “The audience was stacked for Santorum and Gingrich.

“But he has a lot of street cred with evangelicals,” Land says of DeMoss. “He understands us because he’s one of us. So he did great.”

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Now that Romney has outlasted the other candidates to become the Republican nominee for president, DeMoss is using that street cred to help the candidate close the deal with evangelical voters in the weeks before Election Day.

It’s unclear whether he will succeed.

Polls show that although most evangelicals have come around to Romney, there’s a sizable chunk who have not. With those voters making up a huge part of the GOP base in swing states like Ohio, Iowa and Virginia, whether DeMoss’ gambit works could mean the difference between an Obama or a Romney White House.

For DeMoss, who is officially a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, the stakes of his work go well beyond electoral politics. He’s trying to open the American evangelical mind.

“I took this on to tackle prejudicial attitudes,” DeMoss says, explaining how he approached Romney about running for president in 2006, convinced that the then-Massachusetts governor was the most qualified man for the presidency that he’d ever seen.

How Mormonism shaped Mitt Romney

“I discussed it with Romney the first time we met,” he continues, sitting in his room at the elegant Vinoy Resort and Golf Club in St. Petersburg, his home during the convention. “It bothered me that some evangelicals said they couldn’t support a Mormon for president. As a public relations guy, I wanted to change that mindset.”

Which is why DeMoss was in front of the North Carolina delegation at the convention Monday morning, arguing that it’s unfair for some Republicans to insist on a presidential nominee with whom they agree about everything.

“My advice to those folks is perhaps you should run yourself the next time,” DeMoss told the evangelical-heavy delegation in a Hilton Hotel ballroom, still abuzz about a powerhouse speech that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had delivered a few minutes earlier.

“My wife and I have been married for 24 years,” DeMoss said, “and I don’t agree with her on everything.”

Looking professorial in tortoiseshell glasses, a blue blazer and a white polo shirt tucked into khakis, DeMoss never mentioned religion or Romney’s Mormonism.

But you could tell it was a big part of what he was talking about.

It’s why he told the delegation that he has prayed with Mitt Romney and shared scripture with him and has even sought parenting advice from Romney and his wife, Ann.

After years of traveling and visiting with the Romney, DeMoss told the crowd, “I trust his values - for I’m fully convinced they mirror my own.”

It might not sound like much, but an evangelical Christian vouching for a Mormon’s values in front of ballroom full of fellow believers can be a powerful thing.

At least that’s the hope.

Lessons from the Moral Majority

DeMoss developed an appreciation for Mormons from a somewhat unlikely source: the evangelical giant Jerry Falwell.

He enrolled at Liberty University, Falwell’s school, in 1980, the year after his father died of a heart attack. Falwell, a fundamentalist preacher, would become like a second father.

DeMoss’s dad had been friends with Falwell – DeMoss says it’s unclear if the insurance marketing company his father founded, National Liberty Corp., helped give Liberty University its name – and Mark found work in Falwell’s office after graduation.

By the time he was 23, DeMoss was serving as Falwell’s chief of staff and spokesman, helping his boss run a growing evangelical empire that included the Lynchburg, Virginia, university and a new organization Falwell had helped found: the Moral Majority.

The organization aimed to bring evangelicals back into the political fold, after millions of them had spent decades sitting out elections, convinced that politics were a dirty, ungodly business.

“We traveled the country, challenging pastors to get involved. He outworked staff  that were half his age” DeMoss says of Falwell, who died at 73 in 2007.

Mark DeMoss with Jerry Falwell at 1992 Republican Convention in San Diego, California.

Falwell taught him how political organizing works, from the grassroots to the very top. He took him to meetings with President Ronald Reagan, whom the Moral Majority had helped elect, and President George H.W. Bush.

Among the most important lessons Falwell taught, DeMoss says, is that politics is the art of the possible.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who was more politically conservative than Falwell, but he became increasingly pragmatic,” DeMoss says, eating blueberries from a plastic cup in his hotel room. “He was more practical and open-minded than a lot of people saw.”

As he waged crusades against abortion and for prayer in schools, Falwell proudly linked arms with non-evangelicals. While others in the burgeoning Christian Right wanted to organize only among their own flocks, the Moral Majority chief pushed an idea called co-belligerency: people of different religious backgrounds setting aside theological differences to pursue common political goals.

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“A lot of people forget this or didn’t know it to begin with, but the Moral Majority was a coalition of evangelicals, Catholics, Jews and Mormons,” DeMoss says. “It was not an evangelical organization.”

Mormons consider themselves to be Christians, but some evangelicals and other traditional Christians disagree. While Mormons treat the Bible as Scripture, they also consider the Book of Mormon to be a holy book

There are other big differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity, including the Mormon belief that the modern prophets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can receive revelations from God. Traditional Christians believe that the period for such revelations is over.

But Falwell’s insistence on coalition building with Mormons and others stuck with DeMoss long after he left the Lynchburg in 1991 to start his own Christian PR firm in Atlanta.

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The firm, called the DeMoss Group, took Falwell as its first client and quickly added business from big Christian groups like Chuck Colson’s Prison Ministries, Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse and Christian Crusade for Christ.

More than 20 years later, those groups are still with DeMoss.

“What makes Mark different than a lot other guys in this business is that he’s independently wealthy,” says Graham, who notes that DeMoss’ wife, April, is also from a family that started an insurance company.

“I find him to shoot straight because he’s not trying to keep my business,” Graham says. “I think he’s more concerned with trying to be honest. He will bill you and then at the same time he’ll make a big contribution back to you.”

Mark DeMoss with the Rev. Franklin Graham, a client since 1991.

Though DeMoss has kept his work for Romney, which is unpaid, separate from the DeMoss Group, the relationships he built over decades through his PR work are key to selling Romney to evangelical leaders.

Graham had never met Romney before DeMoss arranged for 15 conservative Christian leaders to visit Romney’s Massachusetts home in 2007, when he was preparing to make his first run for president.

As the leaders took turns introducing themselves, many volunteered that they had traveled to Romney’s home mostly because DeMoss had asked them.

By the end of the meeting, Romney had made some new friends.

“Sometimes on TV someone can appear one way but when you meet them face to face you see the personal side of him,” says Graham, recalling the meeting. “After I met Governor Romney I liked him very much and even more l liked his wife and his marriage and his commitment to family.”

As for theological issues that interested some of the evangelicals, Graham says Romney “answered those questions extremely well.”

Since then, DeMoss has helped evangelical leaders not only become more comfortable with the idea of a Mormon in the White House but also with Romney’s evolving position on issues like gay marriage and abortion.

“He’s absolutely trusted as a pro-life person,” Land says of DeMoss. “When he says Governor Romney is pro-life, that means something. That helps.”

Land is among the many evangelical leaders who use DeMoss to relay concerns or advice to the governor.

“Mark’s a trusted negotiator,” says Land, who had dinner with Romney and DeMoss last year.

Though Romney’s 2008 campaign was unsuccessful, DeMoss counted it as a victory that no major evangelical figure came out against him over his faith, even if few publicly endorsed his campaign.

Four years later, there still aren’t many prominent evangelicals who’ve come out publicly for Romney.

And there are questions about where Romney stands with rank-and-file evangelicals. A recent Pew poll found that, while most white evangelicals support Romney, a quarter are uncomfortable with his religion. Just one in five in that group are strongly pro-Romney.

Ten weeks before Election Day, it’s not where a Republican nominee wants a key part of his base to be.

Visiting Salt Lake

DeMoss’ case for why evangelicals can enthusiastically support a Mormon candidate echo Falwell’s arguments about why evangelicals and Mormons should be political allies.

It goes like this: If evangelicals are OK with seeing a Mormon doctor or flying with a Mormon pilot, DeMoss reasons, shouldn’t they be OK with a Mormon president? We’re electing a commander-in-chief, not a pastor-in-chief, right?

Plus, fixing the national economy – the No.1 issue in this election – doesn’t really have anything to do with religion.

In fact, DeMoss was drawn to Romney because of the candidate’s unusual breadth of experience as a businessman, governor and Olympics Committee chief with dual degrees from Harvard.

“On a personal level and a spiritual level, I might care a great deal about what somebody believes doctrinally,” he tells NPR during a phone interview from his room at the Vinroy. “In the case of presidential election, I don’t care.”

After hanging up, DeMoss stays on that point: “I hope I’ve shifted a conversation about the religion of a candidate to one about the values of a candidate.”

DeMoss says that voting on the basis of a candidate’s faith is dangerous and inane. He notes that three of the most successful politicians from his own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, are all Democrats whom many evangelical loathe: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Since January, DeMoss has spent about half his time making such arguments, stressing to clients that the work is not official firm business. Still, he suspects that some potential clients have skipped signing up with the DeMoss Group because its founder and president is pushing a Mormon candidate.

April, his wife, who’s checking her iPhone on the bed of DeMoss’ hotel room, says they’ve lost a few friends over Romney, too. But they’ve also made new Mormons friends, and have developed a deep appreciation for the Mormon faith.

On the van to the hotel to address the North Carolina delegation, Mark and April trade stories with their Mormon driver, a convention staffer, about their respective visits to Salt Lake City, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is headquartered.

Later, DeMoss talks about being turned off by the evangelical street preachers he’d seen on the street corners there, preaching to Mormons in town for the church’s annual general assembly. How could such evangelizers hope to convert anybody in the 30 or so seconds it takes to wait for the light to change?

For DeMoss, the episode represents a civility deficit when it comes to the evangelical treatment of Mormons. He sees his work with Romney partly as a corrective.

Whether DeMoss can help soften the evangelical line toward Mormons is an open question. So is whether he can get enough of his brethren to go a giant step further and vote for a Mormon for president.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

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

soundoff (1,426 Responses)
  1. Kingofthenet

    It's not really the doctrine that's the problem, it's the deception and blackmail.

    September 2, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  2. RealGlaird

    It has been several weeks now and CNN has somehow put in one piece after another questioning or slamming Romney's denomination, Mormonism. Is this an example of the left's tolerance? Which is complete intolerance in reality.

    September 2, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Kingofthenet

      Do you tolerate Jim Jones, Heavens Gate or David Korech?

      September 2, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • NoTheism

      What? Where is this slamming of his denomination that you're referring to? Maybe, you're the only one who can see it.
      Either way, I would call it a cult, but that's just me.

      September 2, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • peter

      real–mormonism is not a denomination of christendom–They believe that the book of mormon is the word of God and that their prophet joeseph smith is their prophet–it is blasphemy as is their false christ in the book of mormon–by the way, i am no liberal–i don't vote for mormons or muslims

      September 2, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  3. Alina1

    The White House is going to become a church.

    September 2, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • collectivedementia

      Or a microbrewery if Obie wins......I like beer...it makes me a jolly good fellow....I like beer...whiskeys too rough,champagne costs too much,vodka puts my mouth in gear.....I like beer.
      Honey Pale Ale or Honey Porter,anyone?

      September 2, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  4. Jen

    Mormonism is growing faster than Christianity in this country.

    Romney has given the Mormon cult millions to recruit new members.

    Try selling that to evangelicals.

    September 2, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  5. Alex

    One thing is sure, if this guy manages to "sell" (adequate word for this thing) a non-Christian polytheist to the fundie crowd then one can "sell" them absolutely anything.

    September 2, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  6. Maria

    Religion is the cause of all wars!

    September 2, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • NoTheism

      Oh, come on, you know that's not true.

      September 2, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  7. tony

    Most other real people don't have personal greed (AND KNOWING THEY DON'T WANT TO EXPOSE HOW BADLY) as their highest goal. Even it means sacrificing some personal time and work on the way up.

    The older tax returns are the key to CONFIRM THE POLICY of how tax cuts created US jobs – OR NOT!!

    September 2, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  8. tcaros

    So, the relgious right wing is stuck with a dilemna.
    They do not want to vote for Obama becuase many of them are bigots. He is a Christian, goes to a Christian church. They know for a fact that Mormonism does not follow the gospel and is a cult which replaces it with works.

    So, they have a choice between choosing Jesus or Barabas. Which will they choose? Look at the deeds people, look at the deeds..... healthcare for everyone vs. offshore accounts and trickery.

    September 2, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • peter

      neither–i'll be on the beach on election day–actually i did vote–santorum–but i will not vote for a mormon

      September 2, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  9. Jen

    Romney has given millions to help the Mormon cult recruit new members.

    September 2, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  10. Norm

    Black liberation theology is a theological perspective found in some Christian churches and the Nation of Islam in the United States which contextualizes liberation theology in an attempt to help African-Americans overcome oppression. Black liberation theology seeks to liberate people of color from multiple forms of political, social, economic, and religious subjugation and views Christian theology as a theology of liberation- "a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the Gospel, which is Jesus Christ," writes James Hal Cone, one of the original advocates of the perspective.

    September 2, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • Bartleby, toothpick user

      That doesn't have to be a theology.

      September 2, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  11. Jen

    Mormons believe:

    Jesus and Satan are brothers
    God is a flesh and blood man who lives on Planet Kolob
    Romney will one day be a God over his very own planet
    Black people can't go to heaven
    It's ok to have dozens of wives

    September 2, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • NoTheism

      Can you tell us what the standard Christian believes, please?

      September 2, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • Kingofthenet1

      Jesus is the one true god, no one goes to heaven except by accepting him?

      September 2, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • NoTheism

      @King, that's it? What happens when you don't go to this "heaven" thing? And, why would one care about going to "heaven"? There is so much to be said about Christianity, and it seems that you're limiting yourself here.

      September 2, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Kingofthenet

      For me as an Atheist doctrine isn't the problem with this cult, it's the Coercion and Shunning

      September 2, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  12. nolimits3333

    Romney's Son of Boss fraud

    In his key role as chairman of the Marriott board's audit committee, Romney approved the firm's reporting of fictional tax losses exceeding $70 million generated by its Son of Boss transaction.

    September 2, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  13. Norm

    Why did not this story include his 2 year mission to France intercity to serve the poor?

    September 2, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • nolimits3333

      Don't you mean to avoid military service in Vietnam?

      September 2, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • NoTheism

      Norm, even if what happened was that he actually went to "serve the poor", which I don't see any other reason then why he shouldn't have stayed in the US, or gone to even worse countries, such as Uganda or something, it remains to be seen whether the INTENTION was to help "serve the poor".
      Either way, Romney, seems to me, like a bit of a crazy person, and I really don't care what his intentions were then, because I am convinced that if he gets elected, he will destroy the US.

      September 2, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Kingofthenet

      You mean the mission to win new converts?

      September 2, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  14. tony

    ONLY THE OLD TAX RETURNS WILL SHOW IF THE BUSH'S BIG PERSONAL TAX BREAKS CREATED US JOBS. SO WHY HIDE THEM???

    September 2, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  15. RaisedMormon

    ISeen from the inside, how Mormons give each other preferential treatment and discriminate against non-Mormons in business dealings. It should make you wonder...

    September 2, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Bartleby, toothpick user

      Every religion does the same thing. It is religion, not any particular one, that is the problem.

      September 2, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  16. tony

    Giving to help the expansion of a religion is not charity. It should not be a tax break. Nor should any religion bet treated as other than any other social networking business.

    September 2, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  17. Help! I'm Confused!

    I'd like to vote Republican but Romney believes Jesus is from Missouri. I thought Jesus was from Bethlehem and stuff. Can someone help me sort this out?

    September 2, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Steve

      If you want someone who is not Christian to learn about Christianity, would you want them to learn it from a Christian, or someone of another faith? If you want to know about Mormons, ask a Mormon. Mormons do not believe that Jesus if from America, we believe in the King James version of the Bible, He was born in Bethlehem to the Virgin Mary. There are so many garbage websites about us that use twisted facts, and outright falsehoods to get you to be afraid of Mormons. We are Christians, folks! Just because some tenets of our doctrine is something you don't believe in doesn't mean we cannot get along. Its okay to share different views, it doesn't make us or you bad people.

      September 2, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  18. Norm

    Where has the Black liberation theology stories and history been???

    September 2, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Bartleby, toothpick user

      That stuff? Shoved under the carpet. Obama is not liberating anyone today. Maybe next year.

      September 2, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  19. Jen

    Mormonism is a crazy cult invented by a charlatan.

    September 2, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • NoTheism

      and how is it any worse than most of the other religions (and by most, I am thinking all for the exception of Buddhism... but I'd be willing to reconsider that too)
      Each religion, 'divine scripture', god, messiah, etc, is a human invention.

      September 2, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  20. Shawn Irwin

    Another really funny thing that christians will say is that Rome fell because of its lack of christianity . . . . yet Rome did not fall until christianity became popular in the empire! That ought to tell you something.

    September 2, 2012 at 11:07 am |
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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.