Last night the eight Republican candidates for president of the United States held a debate about economic policy. Given the media focus in the last few days on Pastor Robert Jeffress’s controversial call for people to vote only for “real Christians” and his subsequent clarification that he meant we shouldn’t vote for Mormons (and Mitt Romney in particular), I figured the issue would have to be dealt with in one of two ways:
1. Texas Governor Rick Perry (who is most closely associated with Jeffress) would have to address the issue by repudiating Jeffress’s remarks. As Charles Krauthammer said, it’s not enough to simply disagree that Mormonism is a cult; we should all agree that urging people to vote by religious affiliation cannot be tolerated in American political discourse. Of course, Jeffress put Perry in an awkward position with Evangelical voters, many of whom think Jeffress was right on the money. From what I’ve seen from Evangelicals in various places, if Perry repudiated Jeffress, he would be seen as pandering to political correctness.
2. The much more likely response would be for Perry to ignore the controversy and hope it goes away. If asked, Perry can say that he’s already deal with this issue (saying that he doesn’t think Mormonism is a cult) and move on. Ignoring the issue allows him to avoid offending Evangelicals and, he can hope, will simply make the issue disappear.
Either of these responses is a net positive for Mitt Romney because, in a single afternoon, Pastor Jeffress has taken Mormonism off the table as a political issue, legitimate or not. A lot of people across the political spectrum are uncomfortable with voting for a Mormon candidate (oddly enough, 22% of Mormons said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon candidate), but Jeffress has effectively driven such discomfort from political discussion. It was bad enough that he used loaded language such as “real Christians” and “cult,” but he encouraged a religious test for candidates and then when given the chance, said Christians shouldn’t vote for Jews, either, unless they had to. So, post-Jeffress, expressing discomfort with Mormonism has the taint of anti-Semitism and narrow religious fanaticism. Again, the Romney campaign could not have scripted it better.
As it turned out, the subject came up only once in the debate, with Jon Huntsman joking that he wouldn’t bring up religion, “sorry, Rick.” Perry and the other candidates have clearly decided to ignore the Mormon issue, not wanting to be associated with Jeffress’s smiling but poisonous bigotry. They wisely want this issue to go away, and so it will.
Back in 2007, Mitt Romney gave a speech discussing his faith and values, and some called it his “Kennedy moment,” referring to John Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September of 1960. However, four years later, Romney’s faith was still an issue. Until now. Pastor Jeffress made sure Romney wouldn’t need a Kennedy moment.
Even if Romney doesn’t win the nomination, Jeffress has done a lot to ensure that a candidate’s Mormon faith will be far less a legitimate issue in the future. And that’s as it should be.