US election 2012: Why America’s Southern evangelicals would ‘prefer a Mormon to a Marxist’

Amid an intense barrage of attack advertisements unleashed by his main rival
in South Carolina, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Mr Romney is facing a
key challenge this week.

Will the predominantly evangelical Republican voters of the state support a
Mormon for president? Whether Mr Romney can secure enough support from this
crucial voting bloc, first in South Carolina and then across the Bible belt,
will be crucial to his hopes of claiming the White House.

Mr Mahaffey, 67, is a Southern Baptist, a denomination whose leaders state
that Mormonism cannot be viewed as a Christian faith.

He is, he said, inclined to support Rick Santorum, the ultra-social
conservative former senator from Pennsylvania. That choice in itself is a
breakthrough as the candidate is a Roman Catholic – also in the recent past
denounced by the Baptist leadership.

Brad Atkins, president of the 600,000-member South Carolina Baptist
Convention, the state’s most influential religious force, told The Sunday
that he was advising worshippers to pray for advice and study
the candidate’s records on key social issues.

But he also made it clear that he considered Mr Romney’s faith a more worrying
issue than Mr Gingrich’s two divorces and recent conversion from Baptism to
Roman Catholicism.

“In South Carolina, Romney’s Mormonism will be more of a cause of concern
than Gingrich’s infidelity,” he said.” Conservatives can process
and pray their way through the issue of forgiveness toward a Christian that
has had infidelity in their life, but will struggle to understand how anyone
could be a Mormon and call themselves ‘Christian’.”

Linked to the doubts about his faith are questions about Mr Romney’s stance on
social and fiscal issues. He was elected governor of Massachusetts on a
pro-gay rights and pro-choice platform and in office introduced health care
reforms that bear a striking similarity to the controversial policies
pioneered nationally by Mr Obama.

The anti-abortion movement tops Mr Mahaffey’s list of priorities – as it does
for most evangelical voters. “We’ve lost 50 million lives of unborns
because of Roe vs Wade [the Supreme Court ruling that legalised abortion].
So we’ve probably killed the cure for cancer and the solution to
unemployment as there would have been some geniuses and plenty of
entrepreneurs among them.”

Mr Romney has pivoted to the right in recent years. But just as significantly,
he has also benefited in recent weeks by fractures among social
conservatives between Mr Gingrich, Mr Santorum and Rick Perry, the Texas

So concerned were conservative leaders nationally at the failure to coalesce
around an ABM (“Anyone But Mitt”) candidate that a meeting was
arranged for this weekend at a ranch near Houston to discuss that mission.
But the prospect of unity seemed on the right still seemed dim last week.

However, three opinion polls in 24 hours have now indicated the race is
closing in South Carolina this weekend as pro-Gingrich groups pushed a
relentless campaign of attack advertisements, assailing Mr Romney for
everything from his private equity career at Bain Capital and his changing
stance on abortion to the French language skills he learned as a Mormon

Mr Romney is fighting back with his own adverts, denouncing those attacks as
extreme, touting the support of Christian conservatives and the stability of
his faith and family – offering an obvious if unstated contrast with Mr

South Carolina has long been known as a cauldron of bare-knuckle politics.
Most infamously, a whispering campaign in 2000 convinced many voters that
John McCain had fathered an illegitimate African-American baby. He lost the
primary to George W Bush.

And four years ago, the Romney campaign also fell foul of dirty tricks when a
bogus Christmas card sent to Republican activists – purportedly from the
Romney family – included controversial quotes from the Book of Mormon.

Mr Gingrich is now leading a do-or-die battle to derail Mr Romney, well aware
that a third consecutive victory for his rival here next weekend could turn
the Republican nomination process into a coronation.

Faced by such high stakes, it is perhaps no surprise that he predicted that
South Carolina faces a political “Armageddon” – a word with
apocalyptic resonance.

And Mr Romney’s lead over Mr Gingrich in South Carolina had been pegged back
to a few percentage points in the three surveys: 29-25, 29-24 and 28-21. If
Mr Gingrich, a native of neighbouring Georgia, is seen to be emerging as the
clear alternative to Mr Romney, then the final week of the campaign could
turn even more bitter.

Four years ago, Mr Romney slumped to fourth place in the state primary, a
finish that effectively dashed his presidential aspirations. Questions about
his faith seriously undermined his prospects then.

This year, he headed straight to the evangelical heartlands around Greenville
in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, after a rally at a
customised motorbike business, he touted his conversion to a pro-Life stance
as well as his belief that the economic crisis would play to his benefit.

In a region dogged by high unemployment and with a polarising Democrat in the
White House, the ballot box terrain for 2012 has switched to two perceived
Romney strengths: the economy and electability.

Greenville is home to the sprawling campus of Bob Jones University, a private
Christian college and bastion of evangelical orthodoxy, where students last
week were discussing the tenets of Mr Romney’s faith.

“I would certainly want to know how his Mormonism will affect the way he
would run the country and whether it would influence his decisions,”
said Lydia Paterson, 18, who is also drawn to the strict anti-abortion
stance of Mr Santorum.

Linda Abrams, a politics professor at the university, said that some doubts
remained with evangelicals about his faith – even if many preferred to
question whether he was a “true conservative” rather than openly
raise concerns about Mormonism.

But she also noted that Mr Romney faced a favourable political climate this
year. “His message of fiscal conservatism plays well with evangelicals
who believe strongly in the principles of financial stewardship,” she

“And most significantly of all, most evangelicals are united by one thing
this year and that’s their desire to defeat Barack Obama. If they think Mitt
Romney is best placed to do that, they’ll unite behind him.”

That view was echoed, albeit reluctantly at times, across the South last week.
In Fountain Inn, asked whether he would vote for Mr Romney in a November’s
election against Mr Obama, Mr Mahaffey nodded slowly if unenthusiastically,
holding his nosewith the fingers of one hand and ticking an imaginary ballot
box with the other.

Gary Bauer, a former Ronald Reagan advisor and presidential candidate who
heads the American Values pressure group, recently endorsed Mr Santorum
before a rally in Greenville. But he told The Sunday Telegraph that
those meeting in Texas would rally behind the cause of defeating Mr Obama.

And Karen Martin, leader of the influential fiscal conservative Tea Party
movement in neighbouring Spartanburg and a vocal critic of Mr Romney,
predicted that conservative foes would unite behind a president she decried
as a “Marxist-Socialist disaster for our country”.

By the standards of the right-wing lexicon of 2012, Mr Obama’s foes would
prefer a Mormon to a candidate who is, in their eyes, a Marxist. A crucial

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