About a year ago at this time, it looked as though Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, was going to be the Republican presidential nominee. But later, John McCain moved ahead of him and won the nomination. There’s been a lot of speculation as to why Romney collapsed so remarkably, just as the primaries were heating up. RNC chairman Michael Steele has weighed in on this, and his assessment, as reported by Politico, is candid:

RNC Chairman Michael Steele, hosting Bill Bennett’s talk show last week, offered his view that Mitt Romney’s main political problem in 2008 was the bias against Mormons in the Republican “base”:

[R]emember, it was the base that rejected Mitt because of his switch on pro-life, from pro-choice to pro-life. It was the base that rejected Mitt because it had issues with Mormonism. It was the base that rejected Mitch, Mitt, because they thought he was back and forth and waffling on those very economic issues you’re talking about. So, I mean, I hear what you’re saying, but before we even got to a primary vote, the base had made very clear they had issues with Mitt because if they didn’t, he would have defeated John McCain in those primaries in which he lost.

Romney’s well-reported “waffling” on abortion assuredly cost him some votes from among the Religious Right, but I had always suspected that latent anti-Mormonism played a role in the failure of his campaign, too — and it’s nice to hear a GOP insider admit it.

There is a backstory to the matter of Mormonism and its acceptance — or lack of it — by many Republicans. The Religious Right as it exists in the US is mostly a Baptist engine. It was the Southern Baptist Convention that gave birth to groups such as Moral Majority, which although it’s now defunct, really set the stage for the Religious Right as a powerful political institution. The Religious Right now has members from across the spectrum of Christian denominations, to be sure, but it remains primarily controlled by Baptists.

American Baptists in general, and the Southern Baptist Convention especially, have conflicted with Mormons for decades now. Both denominations have some appeal to conservatively-inclined Americans and therefore have long tussled over the same demographics. Longstanding Baptist animosity toward Mormons — largely predicated on the oft-repeated but theologically-questionable claim that Mormons are not Christians — could not possibly have failed to played a role in Romney’s demise.

Among the signals of the Religious Right’s underlying and overriding Baptist loyalties, is the fact that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee sprang literally from the tail-end of the GOP pack, to become a prime rival to Romney, almost as soon as it appeared he might win the nomination. Huckabee, please note, is a Baptist minister by vocation. There is no coincidence here, and nothing surprising; rather, in the 2008 GOP presidential primaries, we saw the Religious Right remaining loyal to its Baptist roots as long as it could, only falling in line behind McCain (rather than Romney) as soon as it appeared Huckabee could not win the nomination in spite of his surge.

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