I have been warning this would happen. Over the weekend, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and a leading light in the Southern Baptist Convention, disparaged former Gov. Mitt Romney on account of his religion, saying that Mormonism is a cult and that Christians should vote for fellow Christians instead of for Mormons. Jeffress made his remarks after introducing his buddy, Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the Values Voter Summit, which was organized by Tony Perkins and his Family Research Council.
Perkins, who has become the nation’s most influential evangelical since Rev. Jerry Falwell, said he thought Jeffress’ remarks were “unfortunate.” That is a pretty tame word. Getting the flu is unfortunate. In fact, Jeffress’ words were bigotry, pure and simple. They were not just “unfortunate” they were hateful. And, most importantly, they were not particularly surprising. Jeffress may have been wrong on the need for a religious test for public office, but he was absolutely right when he suggested that many evangelicals would have a hard time voting for a Mormon but were reluctant to admit such to a pollster.
Perkins was not the only person to fail to meet the bigotry head on. Over at CatholicVote.org, Joseph Bottum opined that Jeffress seems to be a “political idiot” and that “Republicans need this kind of crap aired in public like they need a hole in the head.” Actually, Republicans evidently do need this kind of crap aired in public because, as Bottum seems to indicate, they have been arguing the matter in private. Bottum also worries that such an anti-Mormon attitude could be applied to Catholics as well. No? Really? Anti-Catholic fervor among evangelicals? Heaven forbid. No where does Bottum call out Jeffress for bigotry pure and simple.
Pastor Jeffress is, as Bottum wondered, as fiercely anti-Catholic in his bigotry as he is anti-Mormon. On his show “Pathway to Victory,” Jeffress had this to say about Holy Mother Church:
The moral problem with these diatribes is not that Pastor Jeffress is hateful towards us RC’s just as the problem with his attack on Romney’s Mormonism is not that Jeffress was hateful towards Mormons. The moral problem is that he is hateful period. This is not about defending our own, it is about defending against hatefulness.
The political problem is different. The Constitution proscribes any religious test for office. That proscription applies only to the government: It is forbidden from considering a person’s religion as part of the criteria for holding office. The voters, uncluding Pastor Jeffress, are free to consider anything they want when deciding for whom to vote and I suspect many people entertain ridiculous ideas when they cast their ballots: how a candidate looks, whether they would want to go to a BBQ with a given candidate even though they are highly unlikely to ever go to a BBQ with a candidate, etc. But the Constitution’s proscription points to the idea that a man’s, or a woman’s religion, should not matter when considering how to run the government.
I have my problem with this idea that animated the Founders. For them, religion was best considered as a private matter, which is a distinctly Protestant way of considering religion. In fact, I believe candidates should be questioned as to how their religion coheres with their public policy stances. Catholics who support abortion rights, and there are many, should have to explain how they square that stance with their faith. Catholics who oppose programs that assist the poor, and there are many, should face the same question. As I have mentioned previously, it is a testament to the vibrancy of our Catholic faith that Catholic candidates do face such questions: It is a stunning fact of American political history that John F. Kennedy faced many questions about his Catholicism while Richard M. Nixon faced none about his Quakerism. In Romney’s case, I do not know enough about Mormonism to know whether his views cohere with their beliefs, but that was not Jeffress’ stated concern either. He raised his bigotry because of the religious tenets held by Mormons, not because those tenets do or do not lead to a definite political stance.
The USCCB has recently formed an ad hoc committee on religious liberty. They will rightly concern themselves with issues of conscience protections for the Catholic Church but I would encourage them also to take a bold stance against any attacks on Gov. Romney because of his faith. There are many good reasons to oppose, or support, Romney’s bid for the White House. The fact that he is a Mormon is not one of them. As the bishops of the Church that was the target of similar bigoted attacks, both in 1028 when Al Smith ran and again in 1960 when Kennedy ran, our bishops bring a unique perspective to the issue of religious bigotry. They should not be shy in denouncing religious bigotry as the very ground from which attacks on religious freedom spring.