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?

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Republican presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum campaigns at the Faith and Freedom Coalition Prayer Breakfast in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Jan. 15. Evangelical leaders have endorsed Mr. Santorum – a Catholic – showing that politics matter more than religion. Will Mitt Romney – a Mormon – benefit from the shift, too?

Many years ago, one of my best history teachers gave me advice I have never forgotten. “Don’t just listen to what people say,” he urged. “Listen to what they leave out, too.”

I thought of this remark as I read news reports about Newt Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina’s GOP primaries last weekend. In a state where evangelical Christians make up 65 percent of Republican voters, 44 percent of Evangelicals cast their ballots for Mr. Gingrich. Tied for second were Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, who each received 21 percent of the evangelical vote.

Several news outlets reminded readers that Mr. Romney is a Mormon rather than an Evangelical, which could have hurt his showing among conservative Protestants. Going forward, so might his recently released tax returns, which revealed that Romney and his wife donated more than $4 million to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints in 2010 and 2011.

But here’s what almost nobody noted: Gingrich and Mr. Santorum aren’t evangelical Christians, either. They’re Catholics.

Their evangelical backing is a truly astonishing fact, given the long history of anti-Catholicism among evangelical Protestants in America. For more than three centuries, Evangelicals insisted that Catholicism represented a mortal threat to the body politic. But over the past three decades, they have joined hands with their former foes to change the face of politics altogether.

Start with Puritan New England, where ministers taught their flocks that the Pope was the “Beast of Rome” – that is, Satan incarnate. “This is a Catholick Church of the Devil, but not of Christ,” preached the Cambridge-educated John Cotton, who migrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s.

After America split off from England, evangelical clergy added a new charge: that Catholicism was incompatible with democratic self-rule. According to Connecticut minister Lyman Beecher, whose daughter Harriet would author the anti-slavery classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Catholicism was itself a system of mental and theological enslavement. Whereas Protestants thought for themselves, Beecher said, Catholics yoked their minds – and their souls – to Rome.

In the 1930s, when fascism enveloped Germany and Italy, American Evangelicals blamed the allegedly authoritarian tendencies of Catholics in both countries. And when a new totalitarian enemy arose in the 1950s, critics likened America’s Communist enemy to, yes, Catholicism. Both institutions brainwashed Americans and bound them to a “foreign” power, the story went, whether in Moscow or Rome.

Anti-Catholicism was still so strong in 1960 that John F. Kennedy had to make a speech assuring voters that, if elected president, he would not take “instructions on public policy from the Pope.” But relations started to warm in the 1970s, when the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision brought conservative Protestants and Catholics into the pro-life movement.

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.

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.

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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