Yesterday at the Value Voters Summit, Texas Governor Rick Perry was introduced by the Reverend Robert Jeffress. This, according to the Washington Post, is how the introduction went.
2:27 pm: Texas Gov. Rick Perry is introduced by Southern Baptist Convention leader Robert Jeffress, who endorsed the candidate recently. Jeffress called Perry “the most pro-life governor in the United States of America.” He also alluded to Perry’s recent debate fumbles, saying, “do we want a candidate who is skilled in rhetoric, or one who is skilled in leadership?”
Perry came on stage to loud, enthusiastic applause.
What generated the news were remarks made by Rev. Jeffress after Governor Perry’s speech when Politico’s Alexander Burns he was asked if Mitt Romney is a Christian.
Jeffress described Romney’s Mormon faith as a “cult,” and said evangelicals had only one real option in the 2012 primaries.
“That is a mainstream view, that Mormonism is a cult,” Jeffress told reporters here. “Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.”
Asked by POLITICO if he believed Romney is a Christian, Jeffress answered: “No.”
This should not come as a shock to anyone. Jeffress is a pastor and happens to believe that his faith represents the correct interpretation of Scripture. He has also referred to Catholicism as a “cult” so it isn’t like the opinion expressed at the conference broke any new ground.
There are two critiques emerging. First, that advocating voters choose a candidate based on their religious beliefs is a “test” forbidden by the Constitution.
This is just silly on its face. The fact that Mitt Romney is in the primary should be more than adequate proof to any but a dullard that there is no “test” being imposed.
The second critique is more subjective. Should voters choose a candidate based primarily upon his religious beliefs?
The fact that this question can even be asked with a straight face indicates the degree to which religion has been banished from our public square. There is nothing more pernicious about voting on the basis of a candidate’s religion than there is on the university he attended or the state in which he’s registered to vote. If anything, a candidate’s religion, and the degree to which he adheres to it, tells you a great deal about how he will approach a wide range of public policy issues.
Contrary to Politico this is no an “attack” on Romney for being a Mormon. It is a simple statement of fact that Mormons are not Christians as Christianity is understood and practiced by any other denomination. This is not a news flash. The differences between Trinitarian Christianity and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been the subject of books. That isn’t pejorative it is simply a statement of fact. It doesn’t imply better or worse only different. Just as Judaism isn’t Christianity isn’t Islam, though they have the same roots, Mormonism isn’t Christianity despite some similar beliefs.
While Mormons are free to style themselves as anything they wish, expecting others to go along with that self-characterization out of comity is simply a bridge too far.
It is a fair decision by voters to use their own prudential judgment to decide if Mitt Romney’s religion is a barrier to them. It was a fair decision in 1960 for voters to decide whether it was acceptable for a Catholic to be president of an overwhelmingly Protestant nation with a history of anti-Catholicism. And, but for Kennedy père’s mob connections the answer would have been negative. Why is it okay to pick a candidate based on his height or the ferociousness of his coiffure or how well he performs a series of vapid debates and not on the very essence of what he believes?
What is troubling about this instance is less Rev. Jeffress’s ill-advised theological discourse at a political event that the reaction of Romney’s supporters to criticism. To date their reaction has been indistinguishable from the reaction of Team Obama to criticism in 2008. If you criticized Obama it was because he was black and you were a racist. Period. Criticism of Romney inevitably, in sort of a corollary, to Godwin’s Law, results in accusations of religious bigotry.
Just as it is a lot less than useful for Rev. Jeffress to characterize an admirable faith pejoratively it is likewise unhelpful for Romney supporters to insist that everyone agree with their view of their particular theology.