Don’t believe what the national media tells you, says Dr. Richard Land, a leader with the Southern Baptist Convention, Mitt Romney doesn’t need to worry about his Mormon faith being a problem for evangelical voters at the voting booth.
“The fact that we don’t believe that Mormonism is a Christian faith doesn’t mean we would not vote for someone who is Mormon, if they are pro-life,” Land told TIME in an interview on Tuesday. “Romney’s biggest problem with evangelicals has been that he hasn’t been Mormon enough. If he had always held his positions on abortion on marriage that his faith holds, there would be far fewer doubts about him.”
Nonetheless, Land said that he expects the national news media to try to make an issue of Romney’s faith in the coming months, in an effort to damage the Republican candidate’s chances. “I predict that within a week of Romney being nominated, the news media will start running specials,” he said. And they are going to trot out all of the, how shall I put it, rather exotic beliefs of Mormonism in the hopes that it will scare independents into voting Democratic.”
Land is the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Commission, a group that represents about 45,000 churches in the United States with more than 16 million members. An outspoken opponent of abortion and gay marriage, Land does not make endorsements, though he has been a vocal proponent of conservative causes in the past.
He said that much of the national discussion about the relationship between Mormons and evangelicals misses the point. “Most evangelicals know what Mormons believe,” he said. “Their pastors have taught them in order to inoculate them against the missionaries going door to door. You understand that Mormons and evangelicals are in competition.” Through much of the mountain west, in states like Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming, Mormons and Baptists comprise the two largest faiths.
But Land said that this competition will not prevent evangelicals from putting aside their theological differences at the voting booth. “As Baptists, we believe in the separation of church and state,” Land said. “Having been victims of religious prejudice by the media we are sympathetic to it.”
Some recent polling backs up Land’s claim that the evangelical bias against Mormons at the voting booth may be overstated. A Gallup Poll in June of 2011 found that 22% of the country would not vote for a Mormon candidate for president, compared with 9% who would not vote for a Jewish candidate and 7% who would not vote for a Baptist candidate. The opposition to Mormon candidates was higher among Democrats than Republicans, with 27% of Democrats opposing a Mormon candidates based upon their religion, compared to just 18% of Republicans. Among self-described Protestants and non-Catholic Christians, 23% said they would oppose a Mormon, a number on par with the 22% of self-described non-Christians who said they would oppose a Mormon candidate.
Land said that in his last conversation with Romney, during the 2008 campaign, he had advised the candidate to steer clear of any discussion of Mormonism’s religious tenants, in much the same way as John F. Kennedy has avoided discussion of Catholic beliefs as a candidate in 1960. But he expected the questions to keep coming anyway.
“The secular news media has lost all pretense of objectivity,” Land said, saying press coverage regularly favors Barack Obama. “You are in the tank for this guy big time, like you have not been in the tank for anybody since JFK.”