Falwell's Legacy: Why Evangelicals Oppose Romney

A meeting of evangelical Christian leaders in Texas last weekend gathered to decide how best to coalesce around a candidate more to their liking than frontrunner Mitt Romney. They decided to throw their support to Rick Santorum, even though he is lagging in the polls in South Carolina, and it appears likely that the evangelical vote in the Palmetto State will, for the second consecutive time, remain divided.

The irony in the evangelical opposition to Romney is that it seems to have next to nothing to do with the fact that he is a Mormon. For this, Romney should be grateful to the legacy of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whose Moral Majority was the principal vehicle for evangelical political involvement in the 1980s.

When organizing the Moral Majority, Falwell had to change his views regarding the traditional fundamentalist objections to being "yoked" with non-believers -- and by "non-believers," fundamentalists meant anyone who did not subscribe to their views on biblical inerrancy and the core doctrines of the Christian faith. Falwell had read the writings of Francis Schaeffer, who had argued that the Bible contained several instances in which God's people had worked with non-believers. Cyrus, the King of Persia, had ended the Israelites' exile and ordered the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Simon, the Cyrene, had helped Jesus to carry his cross. Schaeffer argued that Baptists could be "co-belligerents" with those of other denominations in seeking to protect the moral fiber of the nation.

The shift from fundamentalist separatism to "co-belligerency" required Falwell and other conservative evangelicals to shift their rhetoric away from the core doctrinal beliefs about which they preached on Sundays, toward a language of "traditional values" and "moral beliefs" that could be shared by conservative evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons and Jews. They could differ about the nature of worship, they could differ about the nature of the Godhead, but they could agree that abortion was evil, same sex marriage an "assault" on traditional values, and the secularism of the society a threat to American greatness.

The doctrinal differences between fundamentalists and Mormons are great indeed, but Falwell's decision to make Moral Majority a political, not a denominational, entity paved the way for the kind of inter-denominational collaboration Romney will need if he hopes to win the nomination and the presidency. Indeed, if anything, Romney's Mormonism may be a help, not a hindrance. Mormons have long been known for their commitment to traditional family values. More recently, the LDS church virtually bankrolled the opposition to same-sex marriage in California. Without his Mormonism as a kind of conservative "get out of jail" card, Romney might have to run on his decidedly moderate record as governor of Massachusetts.

Romney has even availed himself of a traditional evangelical trope -- the conversion story -- to explain his political shift on the issue of abortion. Conversion stories are a staple of the fundamentalist pulpit and, indeed, no one gains admittance to church membership without being able to recount how they were born again. Romney, who was once pro-choice, is now pro-life. He didn't fall from his horse on the road to Damascus; he claims that when he studied the issue of stem cell research, he came to the conclusion that life begins at conception and, consequently, abortion was wrong. Evangelicals love a convert.

There is a problem, however, with Romney's conversion account. It was after his conversion that Romney introduced his health care overhaul and, unlike President Obama's health care reforms, Romney's provides explicitly for taxpayer-funded abortion. Additionally, Romney's health care law gives Planned Parenthood, by statute, a seat on a health care advisory board. For evangelicals, Planned Parenthood is virtually the embodiment of evil. If they think Romney's conversion was insincere, conservative evangelicals will think twice about voting for him.

Another reason Falwell had been reluctant to get overly involved in politics was the long held Baptist belief in "the spirituality of the Church" which proscribed political involvement. In a famous 1965 sermon, "Ministers and Marches," Falwell had denounced those pastors who were leading the civil rights movement. "We have a message of redeeming grace through a crucified and risen Lord," Falwell told his congregation. "This message is designed to go right to the heart of man and there meet his deep spiritual need. Nowhere are we commissioned to reform the externals." But just as Falwell had overcome the traditional fear of being "yoked" with non-believers, his sense that the moral culture of the nation was in such sharp decline he needed to enter the political fray to protect his flock overcame his prior views.

Not every evangelical or fundamentalist, however, agreed with Falwell's decision to become involved in politics. Many continued to adhere to the older Baptist tradition that "the externals" were not the business of the Christian Church. Romney's concern today has to be that, if the GOP nominates a second presidential candidate whose record on social issues is murky at best, more and more evangelicals will revert to their pre-Falwell separationist stance, declining to get involved in politics at all. In the 10 years that Falwell led the Moral Majority, the GOP won three straight presidential elections. When he disbanded the organization in 1989, they lost the next three elections. In 2004, with the help of a ballot initiative on gay marriage, conservative evangelicals in Ohio kept George W. Bush in the White House. If Romney hopes to win in November, he will need more than tepid support from Falwell's heirs. Falwell paved the way for such "co-belligerancy," between a Mormon nominee and the evangelical base of the GOP, but it is unclear if Romney's record on taxpayer-funded abortions and Planned Parenthood will lead many evangelicals to think that prayer, not politics, is the better path.