Before I address the Mormon/Christian/cult controversy launched by Pastor Robert Jeffress at last weekend’s Values Voter Summit, let me first provide full disclosure: I’ve supported Mitt Romney for a very long time — going back to the dawn of the last election cycle. In fact, in 2006 I formed a group designed to answer precisely the kinds of questions Pastor Jeffress raised. That being said, I don’t think it was right for Bill Bennett to accuse Jeffress of “bigotry.” When engaging in religious argument, calling out alleged bigotry simply draws lines; it utterly fails to persuade.
So let’s take Pastor Jeffress seriously and address his arguments. He makes three primary claims: First, he claims that Mormonism is a “cult,” not Christianity; second, he says Mitt Romney is not a Christian; and third, he asserts “Every true, born-again again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.”
While it’s hard to know which of these three claims is most explosive, the “cult” claim is certainly the most pejorative. Conjuring up images of robed, chanting, mind-controlled followers of the likes of Charles Manson and David Koresh, the word is far more inflammatory than illuminating. Anyone who is remotely familiar with Mormonism knows that it bears zero resemblance to a “cult” as commonly understood. And Jeffress himself now seems to recognize that, saying this morning on Fox News that Mormonism is a “theological cult,” not a “sociological cult.” But what is a “theological cult?” How does that differ from, say, a “faith”? It appears that Pastor Jeffress is trying to maintain the use of a slur while shifting its definition beyond all recognition.
Next, I’m intrigued as to how Pastor Jeffress can discern whether Mitt Romney, personally, is a Christian. At the heart of Christianity is the following confession of faith:
That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.
As I’ve asked elsewhere, does Pastor Jeffress know if Mitt has made that confession or if he has that belief? People have told me that Mitt could not possibly make that profession of faith because that’s not what “Mormons believe,” but one’s own (typically erroneous) view of what “Mormons believe” is hardly a God’s-eye view into a person’s soul.
Finally, as an evangelical who supports Mitt, I’m genuinely puzzled by Pastor Jeffress’s claim that as a “true, born-again follower of Christ” that I should support a “Christian over a non-Christian.” Does he mean that I should support a pro-choice Christian over, say, a pro-life Jew? In a 2008 debate with Jay Sekulow, Pastor Jeffress indicated exactly that. This also means that if Mitt Romney had run for governor of South Carolina against Mark Sanford or for senator from Nevada against John Ensign, that “true, born again follower[s] of Christ” should have voted for Sanford and Ensign over Romney. Yet recent history has proven that this would have been a terribly wrong choice. If decades of scandals have taught us anything, it’s that religious affiliation is no guarantor of virtue or competence.
Curiously, however, Pastor Jeffress’s declaration that “true, born-again” Christians should only vote for other Christians (as he defines them) seems to apply only to the Republican primary. He’s indicated that he would support Mitt over Barack Obama, our Christian president. So what’s the guiding principle here? Distilled to its essence, it seems to be this: He’ll play the religion card until the cost gets just too high to bear, then he’ll release the “true” Christians to vote for the “cultist.” Is that a principled road for evangelicals to travel?
As I wrote today in the Washington Post, we should judge candidates by their character, competence, and ideas, not their religious affiliation. And while Article 6 of the Constitution binds only the government, it also establishes a worthy principle for its citizens. When deciding how to vote, judge the man — not his church.