Romney’s foes have been more diplomatic while saying, basically, the same thing. “I’m not running for theologian-in-chief,” snapped Herman Cain in a Sunday CNN interview. Rick Santorum went for the take-him-at-his-word defense on Romney. “He says he's a Christian,” said Santorum on Fox News. “I believe he said Christian. I'm not an expert on Mormonism.”
These are completely fair answers. Saying you don’t know if Romney is a Christian isn’t like saying you don’t know if Barack Obama was born in the United States. It’s like saying you don’t know if Barack Obama thinks he’s a better writer than Jack Kerouac. You can’t answer “yes.” The answer is probably “no.” Electing Mitt Romney in 2012 would mean electing, for the first time, a president whose religion is not part of orthodox Christianity.
Romney was always going to have to deal with this. Mormonism will be up for debate in a way that no mainline Christian’s candidate ever will be. That’s the price of trying to become a presidential first. That’s why Jeffress has made Romney’s job easier. Mormonism has emerged as an issue because a bigot brought it up. The pastor has taken something that liberals were comfortable worrying about—they’ve homed in on Mormon opposition to gay marriage and highlighted how the now-fading Glenn Beck was shaped by the religion—and pre-defined it as kooky hate speech. He’s not going to stop doing that—he even used his Sunday sermon to do it. All that does is remind Mormon-skeptics that the leading critics of the faith are the sort of people who call Islam an “evil, evil religion” that inspires pedophilia and murder. Who wants to team up with that?
When Barack Obama started running for president, some pundits were convinced that his race was going to hurt him. If it didn’t hurt him explicitly, it was going to show up on Election Day, because an alleged “Bradley Effect” would make voters tell pollsters they were fine with a black candidate, right before they voted against him. It didn’t happen. Republican strategists are convinced that Obama’s race and the promise of casting a history-making, bigotry-erasing vote helped him win, and kept the media from going too hard on some of his associations.
There’s no feeling quite like that for Romney, or for Mormons. It has to be manufactured. The independents and conservatives who don’t like Mormonism have to get sick about who else feels this way. In 2008, Mike Huckabee was mostly clever enough to hint at Romney’s religion without sounding like a hater. He was no Robert Jeffress. If Romney eventually overcomes his “Mormon problem,” he’ll have Jeffress to thank.