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In twist, evangelicals now backing Mitt Romney

Long wary of his Mormon faith, the religious right rallying to his cause

“Mitt Romney is not someone I would have picked, that’s for sure,” says D.J. Moberley, a 30-year-old evangelical Christian who now spends hours chatting up Romney.

Pete Marovich for The Boston Globe

“Mitt Romney is not someone I would have picked, that’s for sure,” says D.J. Moberley, a 30-year-old evangelical Christian who now spends hours chatting up Romney.

CULPEPER, Va. — D.J. Moberley, a 30-year-old evangelical Christian, seems an unlikely cog in the effort to elect Mitt Romney as president. He has no ties to the campaign, has been skeptical of the candidate’s Mormon faith, and says, “Mitt Romney is not someone I would have picked, that’s for sure.”

Nonetheless, the real estate appraiser spends hours chatting with his 900 Facebook friends and talking with fellow church members about Romney, all part of his effort to convince evangelicals who have qualms about Mormonism that they should support the former Massachusetts governor. Many other evangelicals are making similar efforts across the country.

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Therein lies one of the more unlikely stories of this year’s presidential campaign: evangelicals, some of whom played a role in Romney’s defeat in 2008, and nearly upset his effort in 2012, are now a vital part of Romney’s hope to win in Virginia and several other swing states where evangelicals are a major constituency.

“Romney is counting on evangelicals. The irony is that this is a shotgun marriage between two very different religions but they are completely dependent upon one another for victory,” said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Romney’s increasing reliance on evangelicals is on display across Virginia. Earlier this year, Romney spoke before 32,000 people in the evangelical heart of the state, Liberty University in Lynchburg. That appearance reverberated at evangelical churches across Virginia, including the one that Moberley attends.

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Moberley’s decision to promote Romney is a telling slice of the story about efforts to win over evangelicals.

Moberley, who is married and has two small children, said he has problems with what he called some of Mormonism’s “far-fetched” teachings. Members of his family, and some of his friends, told him earlier this year they couldn’t vote for a Mormon for president. But he said there has been an evolution over the last four or five months, with most of those one-time opponents deciding to support Romney.

‘Romney is counting on evangelicals. The irony is that this is a shotgun marriage.’

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The motivating force is to defeat President Obama, whom Moberley criticized for supporting abortion rights and gay marriage, among other issues.

Moberley’s religious life and his views are shaped, in part, by his place of worship, Grace Church of Frederickburg. He drives 30 minutes from his comfortable home in a copse of woods outside Culpeper to travel to the church, a sprawling set of buildings behind a strip of shopping malls.

The senior pastor is Ernest Custalow, who grew up on a nearby Indian reservation and traces his ancestry to Pocahontas, who is said to have been converted to Christianity by English settlers in the 1600s.

As an evangelical, Custalow feels he is carrying on that element of his ancestor’s heritage. He built the church from a dozen members to a large complex of buildings and a congregation of more than 800 worshipers.

On recent Sundays, Custalow said, he has preached to his congregation the importance of voting for a candidate who opposes abortion and gay marriage, leaving no doubt he backed Romney and opposed Obama. While he said many evangelicals believe Mormonism is a cult, he said the relevant question is which candidate supports what he called “biblical values.”

“I said, in this election, there is one candidate who stands for biblical values and there is one that is opposed to biblical values, and you are called as Christians to vote for the people who stand for biblical values,” Custalow said.

After the service, Custalow sends congregants to the foyer, where a desk with voter registration materials awaits them. It is a scene, he said, that is repeated in many churches across Virginia and the country.

Custalow said that he, like Moberley, has noticed that evangelicals have grown increasingly comfortable in recent months with the prospect of a Mormon as president. The turning point, he said, came when Romney spoke at Liberty University in May.

“That was like, shock of shocks,” Custalow said. “It sent a strong signal to evangelicals.”

It was a turning point years in the making.

Liberty University was founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell Sr., who in 2006 was part of a group of evangelical leaders who visited Romney as his home in Belmont, Mass. The meeting was held as Romney was pondering his first run for president and was making an effort to win over skeptical social conservatives.

Some of the evangelical leaders bluntly told Romney at that meeting that Mormonism was not considered part of traditional Christianity, but many also said they were more concerned about where Romney stood on social issues such as abortion. Romney was subsequently defeated in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, due in part to opposition from evangelicals, and he later dropped out of the race.

He avoided a similar fate in the primaries this time, in part because he focused more on economic issues than social ones and evangelicals divided their votes among several candidates. But as Romney hit the reset button for the general election, he again began an aggressive outreach effort to evangelicals. His senior adviser on evangelical issues, Atlanta public relations agent Mark De­Moss, had served as chief of staff to Falwell and had helped set up the 2006 meeting.

DeMoss was in position to help reconnect Romney to evangelicals: he also is chairman of the board of the executive committee of Liberty University, which is now run by the late Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr. The younger Falwell, who had never met Romney, asked DeMoss if Romney would be interested in speaking at the school’s graduation ceremony.

“I was very excited about it from every angle,” DeMoss said. “I was really wearing several hats. I’m a graduate of Liberty. I had worked previously for [the senior] Falwell, I am on the board of trustees of Liberty and I’m involved in the Romney campaign. From every angle I was thrilled he was speaking there. I certainly encouraged it.”

Falwell Jr. said the speech was an important moment for evangelicals in Virginia and elsewhere in terms of putting aside their conflicts with Mormonism. He said he rejected the view of some evangelicals who view Mormonism as a “cult.”

“I don’t even know what the definition of cult is,” Falwell said. “Everybody has got a different definition of what a cult is. I do believe the theology is very different from traditional Christianity but my definition of cult would not include Mormonism. I certainly have a different set of beliefs but I don’t believe that is an issue in a political campaign.”

Romney may not be the first choice of evangelicals, Falwell said, but “so much is at stake in this election they see that Romney is on the right side of the issues. I’ve seen that here.” He said there were a lot of students “who had nothing good about Romney in the spring” who now are among his most vociferous supporters.

As a result, Falwell said, “I definitely believe that the evangelical Christians will make the difference in the Virginia ballot.” And Falwell is helping to make sure that difference starts at his school, which strongly encourages voter registration.

Falwell estimated that 80 percent of the school’s 12,000 students are registered to vote — Liberty has its own precinct — and surveys have found that the vast majority support Romney. Many students joined registration efforts across the state, amplifying Liberty’s influence.

Romney underscored his outreach to evangelicals last Thursday when he met for the first time with the famed evangelist, the Reverend Billy Graham. Graham’s son, Franklin, who had been among those who went to Romney’s home in 2006, facilitated the 30-minute meeting in North Carolina.

Afterward, the 93-year-old Graham said in a statement that he hoped Americans would “vote for candidates who will support the biblical definition of marriage, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms.”

Michael Wear, the faith vote coordinator for the Obama campaign, said the president expects to receive significant support from evangelicals.

“While the president may not agree with every evangelical leader on every issue, evangelicals know they can trust the president and that he shares their values on many of the issues at stake in this election,” Wear said.

The campaign recently launched an effort called “People of Faith for Obama,” which includes a video in which the president decries the way faith is used “as a wedge in politics.” Rebutting critics who question his commitment, Obama says in the video that “the power of my Christian faith . . . has guided me through my presidency and in my life.”

A national survey released earlier this month by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that white evangelical registered voters favor Romney over President Obama by 73 percent to 21 percent.

Charles Dunn, a professor of government at Regent University who has written extensively about religion and politics, said Romney appears to be succeeding in an attempt to bridge a divide between Mormons and evangelicals.

“There are people who in 2008 said, ‘There’s no way under any circumstance that I would ever vote for a Mormon,’ are now not only willing to vote for a Mormon but they are willing to wave the flag for him.”

Nonetheless, Dunn said, “the tension will survive. There are Baptist missionaries in Utah trying to convert Mormons and Mormons in Virginia trying to convert southern Baptists. They go door to door. It is like hand to hand combat.” For some evangelicals, he said, it is difficult to support Romney knowing that he will be seen as “the Mormon church’s best missionary.”

Moberley understands the skepticism of evangelicals, as well as their political power. Last April, after it was clear Romney was going to be the GOP nominee, he posted an essay on Facebook titled, “Time to Rally.”

As an evangelical, he wrote, “the sound of rallying behind Mitt Romney doesn’t get me excited. It’s true . . . RomneyCare, abortion flip flopping and Mormonism were all problems for me.” But, he continued, “like it or lunk it, our conservative for the foreseeable future is Mitt Romney.”

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKranish
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