Evangelicals now vote for Catholics. Will they also vote for a Mormon?
Defying a history of anti-Catholicism, evangelical leaders recently endorsed GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum (a Catholic), and South Carolina Evangelicals voted Catholic Newt Gingrich to victory in their primary. Will Mormon Mitt Romney be next to win them over?
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They also joined forces in favor of government vouchers for students attending parochial schools, which Protestants had long rejected as a Catholic plot to raid the public treasury. But as more and more Evangelicals patronized Christian academies, they too began to demand state aid.Skip to next paragraph
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By 2004, when the Democrats nominated Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry for president, Evangelicals praised the Catholic bishops who threatened to deny communion to Senator Kerry because of his support for abortion rights. That same year, a survey of Evangelicals showed Pope John Paul II with higher approval ratings than either Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, both stalwart Protestant televangelists.
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And that brings us back to the devoutly Catholic Rick Santorum, who won the endorsement of 114 leading Evangelicals just before the South Carolina primary. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich – a convert to Catholicism – has been endorsed by “Left Behind” author and minister Tim LaHaye, who once derided Catholic rituals as “pagan” and Catholic doctrine as “pseudo-Christian.”
To be sure, pockets of evangelical anti-Catholicism remain. Before Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann dropped out of the GOP presidential race, for example, news reports said she had belonged to a Lutheran church that described the Pope as the Anti-Christ. But when asked about the statement on her church’s website in 2006 during her congressional campaign, Ms. Bachmann quickly called it “religious bigotry,” which she termed “abhorrent.” She said it was a false statement and denied that she or her church was anti-Catholic. (She did later leave that church.)
And that might be good news for – of all people – Mitt Romney. A recent Vanderbilt University study showed that nearly one-third of Southern Evangelicals said they would not vote for a “qualified Mormon” for president. But when the same respondents were asked how they’d vote if Romney faced off against President Obama, fully 85 percent said they would cast their ballots for Romney – a Mormon.
In other words, they’ll put aside their religious views – even bigotry – in the service of a larger political cause. Maybe they don’t like Romney’s religion, or the millions he donates to it. But politics can dissolve even our most long-standing views and prejudices, as the history of anti-Catholicism reveals. No matter what happens in this presidential election, we should all be happy about that.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).
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