But, a subtext of the Romney campaign, both now and in 2008, is the quietly persistent argument that he is close to unelectable because he is (whisper, whisper) a Mormon. Supposedly, for evangelical Christians, this is almost a deal breaker on its own. While I am no born-again Bible thumper - at best I am an Episcopalian who doesn't go to church - I do know enough to say that I just don't feel it. If being a Mormon is a disqualifier, then being a Jew or a Muslim is probably a disqualifier, too, and I'm not going to go along with that.
All of that is to lead up to Southern Baptist leader Robert Jeffress, who introduced Rick Perry at the Values Voters Summit in DC the other day, and then promptly gave an interview in which he declared that Mormonism is a non-Christian cult; that Christian voters had a duty to vote for a competent Christian over a competent non-Christian; and (my favorite) that Mitt Romney will not be saved.
Reverend, and I say this with all due respect, do you know just how many American presidents have been elected to office whose behavior was such that they are not going to be saved? Being hell-bound is certainly not a disqualifier for higher office in the United States, I'm afraid.
More important, can you tell me what it is about Mormonism that makes Mitt Romney unfit to be president? I am not talking about theology here. I get it that "real" Christians don't view Mormons as being "one of us." But, Mitt Romney is not running for Pope. He is not running to head the Southern Baptist Convention. He is running for president. His religious duties, should he beat Obama, will be to have his picture taken going to church, and to say "God bless America" at the end of his speeches. That's about it.
I've known quite a few Mormons in my day. They were all hard working, solid citizens with an impressive work ethic, and boundless good cheer. For whatever reason, these attributes, especially the last one, have been the source of a lot of mockery from the tolerant left. More important, Mormons have long been citizens of the United States, and so badly wanted Utah to become a state that they were willing to give up some of their more noxious practices in order to obtain statehood. I'm not saying this makes them above criticism, but it does entitle them to a certain amount of decency and respect. The fact that a man in Jeffress's position can't extend that to the Mormons is, frankly, disturbing.
Jeffress has also declared Catholicism to be a cult, as well. If someone said this to me on the bus, I would get up and find another seat. But, it's all good if you are a Southern Baptist "leader," I guess.
Not only that, this sudden demand that we elect only Christians is a definite escalation in the sort of standards evangelicals demand from their presidential candidates. In the past, GOP candidates have had to adopt the pro-life, pro-family views of social conservatives. And that's fine. But, now - at least under the Jeffress standard - GOP candidates must also adopt the religious doctrine of evangelicals. Really? To be president? GOP candidates have a hard enough time mastering the nuances of Roe v Wade. Are they really going to have master religious dogma so that they are better able to determine which Christian sect is a cult and which one is for real?
The conservative coalition is often described as a three-legged stool with fiscal cons on one leg, security hawks on the second, and social cons providing the third. There's a lot of overlap among the three. Indeed, I don't think you can be conservative without believing the basic political tenets of each leg. Where you land depends on your sense of what the nation's priorities should be. Jeffress is coming perilously close to the approach of leftist coalition members, who basically demand obeisance to their discrete set of beliefs/demands in exchange for their ability to deliver votes and money. Whether he meant to or not, Jeffress showed more than a little Reverand Al in his sotto voce demand that Republicans support a non-Mormon for president, or else.
This is a dangerous business. Bill Bennett, for one, denounced Jeffress from the podium at the Values Voters Summit. I agree wholeheartedly with Bennett's message, but when you find yourself publicly denouncing your political allies, that's never a good position to be in. Reports from the scene say that there were audible gasps and murmurs from the crowd, along with applause. There's a bad taste in a lot of mouths on both sides as a result of this.
Needless to say, this is yet another unforced error by Rick Perry who, no doubt, desperately wants to talk about the economy and jobs jobs jobs; but who keeps having to put out these self-starting brush fires.
The Mormons have tax-exempt status from the IRS. They have a clearly articulated doctrine. They have impressive temples. They do charitable works that should humble the rest of us. And so on. At least by the loose standards of the secular world Mitt Romney is seeking to preside over as president, that's enough to make you a religion, not a cult. I honestly don't think it needs to be that simpler.