Evangelical leader Richard Land told NPR Thursday that he believes that voters who share his beliefs will have no difficulty voting for expected Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, "unless he were to do something catastrophic, like pick a pro-choice running mate."
In a wide-ranging interview with NPR's Robert Siegel on Thursday's All Things Considered, Land listed Mike Huckabee as among those he'd like to see the former Massachusetts governor choose for his ticket. And he also said that former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum was "totally wrong" when he said President Kennedy's 1960 speech on the separation of church and state nauseated him.
Land, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, spoke with Siegel from Nashville, Tenn.
In response to Siegel's question about comments by Santorum — a favorite among evangelicals — disparaging the Kennedy speech about the absolute separation of church and state, Land disagreed with the candidate he once backed:
"I've read the speech at least 30 times; I've watched it on video 10 times; I was a 13-year-old living in Houston when my pastor went to the speech. I think then-Sen. Kennedy threaded the needle about as well as it can be threaded. He said, 'I am not the Catholic candidate for president; I'm the Democratic Party's candidate for president. I'll make my decisions on what I think is best for the country, based on my conscience, and no external authority, i.e., the Vatican, will tell me what to do. But I'm not going to deny my faith in order to win this office, and shouldn't be asked to.' And he's absolutely right. We have to assume that his conscience would be guided to some degree by his Catholic faith."
Santorum, Land said, "fundamentally misunderstands the speech."
With speculation swirling about who may emerge as the GOP vice presidential candidate, Siegel wanted to know whether Romney needed to pick a running mate to reassure evangelical voters or should choose someone who is closer to the center politically.
"The first proposed appointment in a proposed Romney administration is who he picks for vice president," Land said. "It's got to be someone who's a social conservative and who's pro-life. There are lots of folks he could pick that would do him good. Not only solidify the base, but would also reach out to a lot of independents. Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee are both people who I think would could do that."
Land also mentioned the Republican governors of Virginia, New Jersey and Louisiana, but Siegel reacted to a potential Romney-Huckabee ticket: "That would be a ticket of somebody who's been a bishop in the Mormon church, and someone who's been a preacher in the Baptist church. You would find that an appealing ticket?"
Land, prefacing his comments with "only in America," said, "I would. I don't endorse candidates. But I think most social conservatives would find it a very appealing ticket."
Siegel noted that in a blog earlier this year Land had said evangelical support for Santorum suggests that the "Catholic issue" is largely irrelevant among social conservatives these days. Is the Mormon issue equally irrelevant, Siegel asked. Land gave a qualified "yes."
"As a political issue I think it is," Land said. "There is a fundamental difference, however. Most conservative evangelicals believe that Catholics are Christian brethren with whom we have doctrinal disagreements. They believe that Mormonism is another religion. They do not accept it as an orthodox Trinitarian form of the Christian faith. But they also don't think that should disqualify Mitt Romney from running for president or being president."
Would you, Siegel asked, count yourself in that camp? "Absolutely," Land said. "The most charitable way to look at Mormonism is that it's the fourth Abrahamic religion. With Joseph Smith playing the role that Muhammad plays in Islam, and the Book of Mormon playing the role that the Koran plays in Islam. It's based upon the Old and New Testaments, but it goes beyond them. That makes them non-Christian faiths."
The general election campaign is likely to pivot on the issues of jobs, the economy, and the health care overhaul legislation, and Siegel asked whether "that's an agenda that can inspire the evangelical community, if Mitt Romney sticks to the economy?"
"I don't think I can adequately describe to you the loathing that social conservatives have for Obamacare," Land said. "They want it buried in a lead coffin lined with garlic with a stake through its heart."
"What it is about this act that inspires such detestation?" Siegel asked. Land didn't mince words:
"First of all, we believe it's unconstitutional," he said. "It completely destroys the theory of enumerated powers. It is suffused beginning to end with a quality-of-life ethic as opposed to a sanctity-of-life ethic. It will lead to a denial of care."
You can hear portions of the Siegel interview on Thursday's All Things Considered.