November 25, 2014

Such a thing as bad press for Mormons after Jeffress?

A political consultant I once worked with, after we saw our candidate’s name appear prominently in a less than flattering newspaper article, made the following comment:

“Did they get his name right? We’ll take it.”

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with free press. (A caveat might be carved out for when that press involves dead interns, but other than that…)

Right now, thanks to a hostile baptist preacher, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka the “Mormons“) are receiving a lot of free publicity. Oh, and so is Mitt Romney, candidate for the Republican nomination for President. I wonder if that’s what Robert Jeffress intended when he slammed Mormons for being a “cult.”

Here’s a quick review of the myriads of free press the attack has and is garnering:

The Salt Lake Tribune takes the chance to promote their favorite candidate for 2016, or 2020, Jon Huntsman:

Jon Huntsman is right. The question of whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a cult or is Christian is a political sideshow. The race for the Republican presidential nomination should be about important policy issues, not about which candidate or which denomination is Christian.

Charles Haynes of the Senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, says that anyone familiar with US history would find it ironic that a Baptist preacher is calling someone a cult, especially given their history of being called a heretical and dangerous “sect” in the 18th century. Further

Mormons running for president, however, still face name-calling and bigotry from those who believe putting a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the White House will somehow threaten their vision of America as a “Christian nation.”

Theological differences, of course, matter to people of faith – and there is a time and place for open and honest dialogue about competing definitions of the “true church.” But that debate has no place in the political arena, especially when inflammatory labels are employed that deepen our divisions and fears.

It’s a sharp and insightful piece, and you should read it.

You should also check out Slate, which calls religious bigotry the “prejudice of our age.”

Cain and Perry showed no such clarity a week later, when Robert Jeffress, a prominent Baptist pastor speaking at a national family-values conference, called Mormonism a non-Christian cult and urged voters to support Perry over Romney because Perry was a “genuine follower of Jesus Christ.” Cain, again appearing on two Sunday shows, refused to say whether Mormons were Christians. “I’m not getting into that controversy,” he told CNN’s Candy Crowley before implicitly affirming the distinction: “I am not going to do an analysis of Mormonism versus Christianity.” When CNN asked the Perry campaign whether Perry would repudiate Jeffress’ statements, the campaign said Perry “does not believe Mormonism is a cult,” but it ignored the pastor’s other allegations.

The gap between these two episodes—clear condemnations of racism, but silence and ambiguity about anti-Mormonism—illustrates a fundamental weakness in our understanding of bigotry. We’re always fighting the last war. We hammer a politician’s connection to prejudice against blacks, no matter how symbolic the prejudice or how old, distant, and tenuous the connection, because nearly everyone recognizes this bigotry as bigotry. Denouncing it is easy. What’s hard is speaking out against a bias that isn’t so widely recognized. It’s politically difficult because challenging a common prejudice could cost you votes. And it’s morally difficult because the biases of your era are hard to see.

From evangelical Richard Mouw, the President of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California:

“We evangelicals and our Mormon counterparts disagree about some important theological questions,” Mouw continued. “But we have also found that on some matters we are not as far apart as we thought we were.”

Apparently, Jeffress’ “theological” interpretation is not as firm as he had thought.

William McGurn, writing in the Wall Street Journal, said that the “Cult of Anti-Mormonism” needs to end, on both the left and the right:

Here’s some advice for Republican candidates appearing at Tuesday’s presidential debate at Dartmouth College. When you are asked, as you will be asked, what you make of the Christian pastor who called the Mormon faith a “cult,” there’s only one appropriate answer.

It comes from the last sentence of Article VI of the Constitution, and it reads as follows: “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that.

and

Hannah Smith of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty puts it this way: “At the heart of the First Amendment is the freedom to participate in the political process regardless of faith,” she says. “When people of any faith face retribution—either through violence or intimidation or loss of their livelihood—as a direct result of that participation, America has lost something.”

So it’s good to see Republican feet now being held to the fire on an issue the Founders resolved in 1787. Even more encouraging would be a press willing to give attention to very real concern among politically active Mormons: whether a Romney nomination would mean LDS members staying on the sidelines out of fear of the kind of attacks on their property and their livelihoods that their co-religionists experienced with California’s Proposition 8 and its aftermath.

So amid all the coverage given to Pastor Robert Jeffress, ask yourself this question. If you were a Mormon, which would you consider the real threat to your liberty: what some Dallas Baptist says about your faith—or organized attacks intended to intimidate and drive you off the public square?

McGurn notes that while this debate is happening mostly among Republicans competing for the Presidential nomination, polls show that Democrats are more hostile to a Mormon presidency than are Republicans.

But back to Article VI of the Constitution: Justin Hart agrees–there should be no religious “litmus test”‘ for President– even while he participates in some “secret handshakes” of his own.

I could spend this post defending Mormonism from attacks - like the one hurled today by Pastor Jeffress during his introduction gf Governor Perry at the Values Voters Conference or I could simply point out the obvious: a religious litmus test is both unconstitutional in character and imprudent for a political stragegy.

Even the Utah Democrats got into the act, going to bat for the underdog (yes, in answer to your question: there are Mormon Democrats):

“As Latter-day Saints — and Democrats — we are appalled and disappointed by Jeffress’ statement that Mormons are not Christian,” stated McAdams and Young-Otterstrom. “As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, we know that the foundation of our belief is the divinity of Jesus Christ. Members of the LDS Church are compassionate, caring individuals who seek to follow the example of Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

Finally, someone looks at the political ramifications of Jeffress’ remarks. The comments will hurt Rick Perry, said Karl Rove, even if Perry didn’t make them:

This is a terrible mistake on the part of the Pastor; it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t belong in politics. We want our candidates, we want our leaders to be people of faith, but we don’t get into and we haven’t gotten into since at least the 1960 presidential election in the determination over whether or not somebody’s professed faith is acceptable to the vast majority of Americans.

And that, ultimately, is what matters: this it the kind of thing that doesn’t belong in politics. It’s not American, and it represents everything that our founding document–the Constitution–is intended to end. That is why, in the end, I think we will see this kind of religious bigotry backfire.

Read more about the Mormons, aka “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” here.

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