Mormon Controversy: Pastor Robert Jeffress May Be Doing Mitt Romney A Favor By Bashing Mormonism

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 10 2011 12:48 PM

The Mormon Moment

Pastor Robert Jeffress may be doing Mitt Romney a favor by bashing Mormonism.

111010_POL_Robert-Jeffress
Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church Dallas

Photograph © 2010 First Baptist Church.

Mitt Romney should send Texas pastor Robert Jeffress a gift. It could be a fruit basket, or an e-card, or a bottle of nonalcoholic scotch. Really, whatever Romney thinks is appropriate. If the Great Mormon Debate of 2011 had to happen—and it did—the candidate couldn’t ask for a better instigator than a guy with the gravitas of a jug band soloist and the tact of a Laugh Factory heckler.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

I watched it happen and almost knew how it would end. Before Rick Perry’s big Friday speech to the Values Voter Summit, a Jeffress accomplice scuttled around the press seats, passing out his remarks, in which the pastor from First Baptist Dallas would plead for the nomination of “a genuine follower of Jesus Christ.” After Romney spoke (a fine speech, not that anyone remembers it), Jeffress hung around offstage, available to roving mobs of reporters. He called Romney “a member of a cult” and said “the idea that Mormonism is a cult is not some fringe conservative idea.” The pastor hung out for hours, taking cell phone calls, doing live TV hits, repeating the word “cult” a few times every minute.

Advertisement

Jeffress used his moment to create a substance heretofore unknown to nature: sympathy for Mitt Romney. The pastor was condemned almost immediately by people as diverse as James Fallows (“anti-Mormonism is bigotry”) and Bill Bennett (“do not give voice to bigotry”). In his summit speech, right after warning of “a race war declared by the New Black Panther Party,” Glenn Beck summoned his famous tears and said, “I am a proud member of the Church of Jesus Christ”—aka, a Mormon. The Romney religious question has been brought into the race as a vaudeville routine, with a cartoon villain that everyone can agree to hate. It’s the best the candidate could have hoped for. Any other way, this issue is a loser for him.

Romney’s problem: math. Voters are less comfortable with the idea of a Mormon president than they are with the idea of a Hispanic president, or a Jewish president, or—we have some proof now—a black president. In a July Gallup poll, 22 percent of Americans said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon. It was the second highest “nuh-uh” number since Gallup started asking the question in 1967, when Romney’s father was exploring a run.

That poll shows that, while Jeffress’ marathon reporter rap session was clumsy and bigoted, his statements were merely a reflection of how acceptable anti-Mormon sentiment  is. Mormons consider themselves to be Christians. Many Christians don’t buy it. Mormonism is different enough from orthodox Christianity, from the belief that Christ started to atone in Gethsemane to the belief that he will return to Missouri, that a mainline Methodist or Catholic or Baptist can’t honestly say that the religions are all the same.

At the Values Voter Summit, which put 3,000 mostly Christian activists in a few rooms for reporters to survey, this was the common take. Opinions differed between total agreement with the “cult” idea—“that’s just true!” said a home-schooled student named Samuel Barton—and technical disagreements that conceded Jeffress’ point.

“There is nothing that is traditionally Christian about Mormonism,” said William Temple, the “Tea Party Patriot” and pastor who dresses as a Revolutionary War figure and ends up in the photo shoots of every major conservative event. “When [Romney] says, or when anyone says, ‘a belief in God,’ my question as a pastor is: What God?”

He explained this at length:

TODAY IN SLATE

The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

Should the United States Grant Asylum to Victims of Domestic Violence?

The Apple Watch Will Make Everyone Around You Just a Little Worse Off

This Was the First Object Ever Designed

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 

Moneybox

How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest jewels.

Music

A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now …

The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.

Is Everyone Going to Declare Independence if Scotland Does It? 

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Trending News Channel
Sept. 12 2014 11:26 AM Identical Twins Aren’t Really Identical
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 14 2014 2:37 PM When Abuse Is Not Abuse Don’t expect Adrian Peterson to go to prison. In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 13 2014 8:38 AM “You’re More Than Just a Number” Goucher College goes transcript-free in admissions.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
  Arts
Music
Sept. 14 2014 11:44 PM A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now … The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?