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.
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.
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:
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.