Four years ago, as evangelical Christians flexed their political muscle during Iowa Caucus season, Republican voter Kathy Arzani winced at scripted religious nuances intended to pull support away from fellow Mormon Mitt Romney. He was the front-runner in Iowa in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.
A Mormon living and worshipping in Dallas County, an enclave for evangelical politics, Arzani has seen the religion card played before: In 2007, an Iowa city councilman made national news when he called Mormonism "a cult."
This time, the anti-Mormon comments were made by the Rev. Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist minister. In his endorsement of fellow Texan Rick Perry for president, he called Mormonism a cult and Romney a faux Christian.
It's “a ludicrous scare tactic,” Arzani said, the kind of thing that’s been going on since the 1800s, when Mormons fled settlements in Missouri and Illinois and moved west and into Iowa to avoid persecution.
If Mormonism is such a threat, Arzani asks, why hasn’t Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, been similarly vilified?
The answer may be that Reid didn’t have to court Iowa’s evangelical Christian movement to get his job.
And another possible answer: Evidence shows that in Iowa, the "Romney's a Mormon" card was a winner.
What happened in Iowa in 2007-2008?
In August 2007, Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints seemed not to matter much: He won the Ames Straw Poll with 32 percent of the vote; his closest rival was former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, at 18 percent.
But by the time the caucuses rolled around in January, evangelical Christians had advanced their man, Huckabee, to the front of the pack. Huckabee won easily with 34 percent of the votes cast in a caucus that saw record turnout among Republicans, and Romney finished second with 25 percent.
What happened during those five months? A 2007 pre-caucus Des Moines Register poll measuring the importance of a candidate’s religious beliefs offers some insight, finding that:
- More Republican voters in Iowa care about social issues than care about economic issues.
- Three out of four likely GOP caucus-goers said it was important for them to agree with a candidate’s religious beliefs.
- Nearly half of likely Republican caucus-goers described themselves as born-again fundamentalist Christians, and within that group, Huckabee out-polled Romney, 47 percent to 20 percent.
A candidate’s religious beliefs absolutely matter, said Jeff Mullen, pastor of Point of Grace, an evangelical Christian church in Dallas County that invited Michele Bachmann to speak on her love of America at a special Fourth of July service earlier this year.
“I think people are curious as to the framework any leader, elected or unelected, uses to make their decisions,” said Mullen, who recently announced his candidacy for a seat in the Iowa Senate in 2012. “So it’s fair to ask, ‘What are your core values?’ which are very often expressed through religious beliefs.”
'God, guns and gays'
There may be some key differences in this election cycle and the last one, said David Yepsen, a former Des Moines Register political editor who covered the caucuses for more than two decades before becoming director of Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in 2009.
The main difference: The worst recession since the Great Depression still has an unforgiving grip on most of the nation.
“Every poll out there is tied to the economy, even among social conservatives,” he said. “It’s not just God, guns and gays. People are worried about their jobs.”
And, Yepsen added, this time around the remarks could cause a backlash. Four years ago, the anti-Mormon remarks were made by non-players and amounted to little more than a whisper campaign. This time, the religious bashing boomed from the mouth of a prominent Perry supporter into an open microphone.
“It’s just not the kind of thing people say publicly about someone else’s religious faith,” Yepsen said. “It’s just beyond the pale.”
Death knell for Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status?
Evangelical Christians’ increasing power at the ballot box worries moderate Republicans like Mary Kramer of West Des Moines, a former state senator and U.S. ambassador to Barbados and a current Romney supporter.
She thinks Jeffress went too far in his public denunciation of Mormonism, and Perry didn’t go far enough in repudiating it, but whether Iowans will abandon their support of Perry is “hard to tell.”
If they don’t and Perry wins the caucuses, Kramer thinks Iowa’s status as the first test of candidate strength, already under the microscope, could be further questioned because it will be seen as another case of the far-right religious fringe taking over the Iowa nominating process.
“That sort of thing really throws gasoline on the fire, and suggests that Iowans are too conservative and not representative,” she said.
Kramer said fiscal conservatives are growing weary of the evangelical movement’s apparent lack of tolerance of others’ religious beliefs. She said that as she lunched with her own former political supporters, Jeffress’ slur was a chief topic of conversation.
“This very senior guy came up to me and said, ‘What’s next? We’ve got cults? What else can we attack?’" Kramer said. "He just rolled his eyes; he’s one of those people who worries about the Republican Party being so far to the right.”
Kramer says Jeffress’ characterization not only amounts to demonization, but also a regression on an issue she thought was resolved a half-century ago when John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, won the presidency.
“I thought we had kind of settled the fact about how a person’s qualifications in this country and life experiences were measured, going back how many decades when we had a similar discussion around Catholicism,” she said.
Des Moines lawyer Jerry Crawford, a powerful political operative who has chaired multiple Democratic presidential campaigns in Iowa, said he doesn’t think Romney’s faith will prevent him from doing well in the Iowa Caucuses. And if Romney winds up winning the GOP nomination, using his faith to marginalize his candidacy, “would help Romney,” Crawford said, because there would be a backlash against the bashers.
“I think there are much more legitimate reasons to oppose Mitt Romney than his faith, such as his extraordinary intellectual flexibility when it comes to taking a position on an issue,” Crawford said. “I think that’s a way to be against him.”