WHILE THERE may be some good reasons to vote against Mitt Romney for president, there is one completely foul one.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the leading faith to emerge from the United States, and has been practiced by some of the country’s greatest political and business leaders, including Romney, fellow GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, among millions of other followers. It stresses faith, family, and the collective advancement of American society. There is nothing especially unusual about Mormon practices or beliefs; the stories and doctrines of the Mormon faith differ from those of other major religions in detail, but not in kind. The leaps of faith required of those who practice any religion can seem exotic or unbelievable to outsiders.
And yet, perhaps inevitably, the “Mormon issue’’ has finally emerged in the 2012 presidential campaign, via an evangelical preacher who introduced Romney’s main rival, Texas Governor Rick Perry, at a Values Voters Summit in Washington last week. The Rev. Robert Jeffress is not a fringe character; he has a substantial following among evangelical Christians. But he also has a history of denigrating other faiths, including Islam and Judaism. Nonetheless, Perry approved of Jeffress to deliver the introduction. It included the line, “I think Romney is a good moral person, but those of us who are born-again followers of Jesus Christ should prefer a competent Christian.’’ Jeffress later called Mormonism “a cult.’’
It would be entirely reasonable for evangelical voters to favor one of their own, the way some conservative Catholics might go to the polls for former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum because he explicitly espouses their values. But it would be an expression of prejudice for those who would otherwise prefer Romney to turn against him solely because of his religion. Jeffress was clearly suggesting that voters do just that.
It was not surprising that Perry expressed some disagreement with Jeffress’s views, without condemning him any further. The goal of the Perry campaign, obviously, is to distance itself from those who would demonize the Mormon faith while reaping the benefits of any evangelical voters who switch from Romney to Perry, who shares their faith. But murmurings of disapproval are not sufficient in this case, because the larger principle of separation of church and state - which has allowed religion to flourish in this country - is undermined when certain faiths are stigmatized as illegitimate and their adherents are deemed unworthy of office. Perry, who purports to love the Constitution, should stand up for it now.
Romney, for his part, addressed the Values Voters Summit and alluded to the Mormon controversy by suggesting, “We should remember that decency and civility are values, too.’’ They are, and they have been in short supply on the GOP campaign trail, where criticisms of Muslims and illegal immigrants have sometimes veered into scapegoating.
Romney would do well to speak up forcefully for decency and civility - but no more or less than the other candidates. Being the victim of an ignorant attack doesn’t confer any special obligations. Romney deserves the benefit of any doubts sown by Jeffress or other evangelical leaders who, by taking potshots at other religions, have undercut their own standing as moral leaders.