When Dallas First Baptist Church pastor Robert Jeffress endorsed Mitt Romney this week, it raised some eyebrows. Jeffress, after all, was the evangelical leader who roiled last year’s Value Voters Summit by casually telling reporters that Mitt Romney was “not a Christian,” but instead a member of the Mormon “cult.” His endorsement should serve as a warning to any Democrats who expect that evangelical distaste for Mormonism will cost Mitt Romney a significant number of votes. Most conservative evangelical political activists, like Jeffress, have long since subordinated any theological concerns about political leaders to a cultural agenda where all are welcome allies.
There’s nothing mysterious about this phenomenon, and it doesn’t reflect dishonesty, either. Jeffress himself explained his endorsement of Romney in pretty clear terms:
Given the choice between a Christian like Barack Obama who embraces very unbiblical principles like abortion and a Mormon like Mitt Romney who supports biblical values like the sanctity of life and marriage, I think there’s a good biblical case for voting for Mitt Romney.
In other words, so long as a candidate is on the same page as the Christian Right on same-sex marriage and abortion— and, increasingly, contraception—his understanding of the metaphysical nature of the universe isn’t a deal-breaker. Mormons are as welcome in the fight against encroaching secularism as anyone else.
The same principle guided the remarkable rapprochement between conservative evangelicals and “traditionalist” Catholics in recent decades. When the theocon Catholic theoretician Richard John Neuhaus and evangelical celebrity Charles Colson formed Catholics and Evangelicals Together (CET) in 1994, it was perceived as a quasi-revolutionary development. It was particularly controversial among Catholics who felt the group’s efforts to move from tactical political cooperation on issues like abortion to theological accommodation went too far. That controversy now seems quaint. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recently released “Statement on Religious Liberty” went out of its way to endorse a recent manifesto by CET, published in the late Father Neuhaus’s magazine First Things. The Bishops’ statement echoes conservative evangelicals in demanding a high-profile campaign against the Obama administration’s so-called attacks on religious liberty—specifically, the contraception coverage mandate and recent judicial decisions that deny federal funds to religious organizations unwilling to comply with anti-discrimination laws.
To be sure, there are still cross-confessional tensions on the Right. While most conservative evangelical leaders are entirely comfortable with laissez-faire capitalism and have happily participated in the Tea Party Movement, many if not most traditionalist Catholics—along with the Church hierarchy—adhere to a social teaching tradition that inspires pointed criticism of the Ryan budget But the same Bishops who have chastised Ryan have this week cracked down on American nuns for elevating social justice concerns over “the church’s biblical view on family life and human sexuality.”
And seen from this perspective, Romney’s Mormon faith is as much a positive factor as a negative one. Indeed, another prominent evangelical critic, the homophobic American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, has said repeatedly that his biggest problem with Romney is that “he’s not Mormon enough”—meaning, he has been insufficiently faithful to LDS teachings on abortion and homosexuality.
It’s still possible that the unfamiliar nature of Mormon doctrine may have a subtle effect on evangelical enthusiasm for Mitt. But any evangelical distrust of Mormon theology pales beside the evangelical distrust of mainstream Protestantism—which happens to be the strand of Christianity that Barack Obama belongs to. This attitude can be seen in Rick Santorum’s dismissal of mainline U.S. Protestants as “gone from the world of Christianity”—a comment from 2008 that came to light during the heat of this year’s primary season. While Santorum’s statement was widely criticized, it’s a broadly held, even axiomatic, view for many conservative evangelicals and Catholics. Indeed, conservative minorities in the mainline denominations (most notably Episcopalians) have become accustomed to accusing mainline leaders of heresy and apostasy.
Sure, conservative Christians would have preferred a candidate with a less complicated and controversial belief system than Mitt Romney’s. But as Bryan Fischer indicated, their doubts about Romney probably owe more to the conservative anxiety about his slipperiness than to any particular concerns about the LDS. And in the end, as Jeffress stated plainly, the only religious test that matters is whether you support the “Biblical values” of hostility to feminists, gays, and liberal Protestants like the president.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.