Values Voter Bigotry Fest Erupts In War of Words Over Romney's Faith
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At last weekend's Values Voter Summit, they came, it seems, not to praise Mitt Romney, but to bury him. In what has become an annual festival of rhetorical gay-bashing, feminism-stomping and liberal-loathing, conference sponsors this year managed to add another target to their list: Mormons.
In a year that featured nearly all the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination as conference speakers, the sights seemed firmly set on the former Massachusetts governor, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, home to the Mormon faith, who showed up nonetheless to pitch a crowd composed overwhelmingly of right-wing evangelical Christians.
It began when conference sponsors, FRC Action (the political arm of the Family Research Council) and the American Family Association (ranked as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center) selected Pastor Robert Jeffress to introduce Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is viewed as Romney's chief rival for the nomination.
Jeffress, pastor of a Baptist megachurch in Dallas, was among those who worked with Perry on the governor's controversial July prayer rally, dubbed "The Response." He is also known for his anti-Mormon (and anti-Catholic) views.
Indeed, hours before Jeffress took the Values Voter stage, Right Wing Watch began tweeting links to its research on Jeffress' statements about Mormonism, some of them made during Romney's 2008 presidential run. One, in particular, in which Jeffress called Mormonism "a cult," captured the interest of reporters.
From the Values Voter stage, Jefrress made the same point more subtly. "Those of us who are conservative, evangelical Christians are going to have a choice to make...." he said. "Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ? Rick Perry… is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ."
Perry, on taking the podium, was quick to express his appreciation for Jeffress' endorsement of his "genuine" Christianity. "And Pastor Jeffress...he knocked it out of the park, as we like to say -- a fellow who on any given Sunday is working with 10,000 Texans in his church. So I just again want to say thank you to quite a leader."
With Jeffress having established bona fides as the real Christian in the race, Perry devoted most of his speech to economic issues, and bashing President Barack Obama on the state of the economy, which he attributed to the president's purported lack of belief in American exceptionalism.
Perry tried to cover his tracks a bit on the subject of immigration, where he had got into trouble with the right for defending his belief in providing in-state tuition benefits to the children of undocumented immigrants who brought them to the U.S. without papers. To do otherwise, Perry had said in a debate, would be "heartless." In his speech to the Values Voters, Perry touted his record on border security, his veto of a bill that would have allowed undocumented workers to have drivers licenses, and a "voter ID law to protect the integrity of our elections." His speech was well-delivered and well-received, but met with less enthusiasm than the stemwinder delivered later that day by Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, who is now running ahead of Perry in some polls.
After his appearance at the podium, Pastor Jeffress was only too happy to take a lap around the bases with reporters in a hallway at the Omni Shoreham in Washington, D.C., the hotel where the conference took place, to carry the message that Romney is, essentially, not a Christian.
"Do you believe that Mormonism is a cult?" asked Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches.
"Absolutely," Jeffress replied. "Our Southern Baptist Convention has labeled it as a cult."
"Have you expressed this view to Gov. Perry?" asked Slate's David Weigel.
"No. He is not aware of my views on Mormonism, nor am I aware of his," Jeffress said.
In fact, Jeffress' views on Mormonism are well-known in Texas; he made the same sort of attacks -- reported in the Dallas Morning News -- on Romney during the campaign for the 2008 GOP presidential primary, in which Romney also ran.
Later, Perry spokesman Robert Black told reporters, according to the Washington Post, “The governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult. He is not in the business of judging people. That’s God’s plan.”
More than a few evangelicals are quite certain that God has judged Mormons to be members of a cult. Perry has not disavowed Jeffress' endorsement, which the pastor touted in a press release from his First Baptist Church, circulated to reporters at the conference.
The trap was laid for Romney with the setting of the conference agenda -- not just in the choice of Jeffress to introduce Perry, but in the choice of the speaker who would follow Romney: Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. Fischer's day job mainly consists of demonizing gay people (even blaming them for the Holocaust), and he enjoys indulging in a bit of Mormon-bashing on the side. Fischer has long been something of a nemesis for Romney.
When the Values Voter Summit agenda was released several weeks ago, LGBT groups began pressuring Romney not to share the stage with Fischer, and reporters were primed to expect some sort of distancing from Fischer by Romney from the conference podium. Romney obliged, though without mentioning Fischer by name.
Appearing before Romney took the stage, former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett had harsh words for Perry endorser Pastor Jeffress, saying that the preacher had done Perry no favor. Seeing an opportunity to tweak Perry, Romney smiled and said, "And speaking of hitting it out of the park, how about that Bill Bennett? Isn’t he something else?"
“We should remember that decency and civility are values too,” said Romney said in a speech that was politely received. “One of the speakers to follow me today has crossed that line, I think. Poisonous language doesn’t advance our cause, it’s never softened a single heart or changed a single mind.”
Fischer has suggested in the past, according to Right Wing Watch, that the U.S. Constitution applies only to Christians. After his speech, I asked Fischer if he believed Mormons to be Christian. "Mormonism is outside the mainstream of historic Christian orthodoxy," he said, declining to elaborate.
Fischer was hardly more forgiving at the podium. "[T]he next president of the United States needs to be a man -- and I'm speaking generically here -- needs to be a man of sincere, authentic, genuine Christian faith," Fischer told the Values Voter audience. He went on to assert that 52 of the 55 framers of the Constitution had signed an "oath of affirmation" of their belief in "a historic, conservative, orthodox statement of Christian faith."
For good measure, Fischer issued a litmus test on Darwinism. "I submit to you that not a single one of our unalienable rights will be safe," Fischer said, "in the hands of a president who believes that we evolved from slime and that we are the descendants of apes and baboons." (You can watch Fischer's speech here.)
Romney has professed belief in a variation on the religion-infused "intelligent design" theory -- one that includes Darwin's theory. “I believe that God designed the universe and created the universe,” Romney told the New York Times in 2007. “And I believe evolution is most likely the process he used to create the human body.”
After Fischer left the stage, reporters gathered around him in a hallway. Asked by ThinkProgress what he made of Romney's criticism of him from the podium, Fischer replied, "I thought it was tawdry and tasteless. I think he allowed the New York Times and the Southern Poverty Law Center and People for the American Way -- he allowed them to dictate the content of his speech....And right there, people ought to be concerned about that."
The whole thing had the feel of a carefully strategized attack, one designed to hurt Romney in the early caucus and primary states of Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, where voters are organized through networks of evangelical churches. Romney is viewed with suspicion by right-wing Christian evangelicals not only for his faith, but for his formerly pro-choice stance and his role in enforcing a decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court that declared unconstitutional the commonwealth's prohibition on same-sex marriage.
The strategy also seemed designed to help shore up Perry, who has been slipping in the polls after lackluster debate performances. While Ron Paul, through organizing through the Campaign for Liberty and the purchase of some 700 conference registrations by CFL and individual Paul supporters, won the Values Voter straw poll -- and Herman Cain's strong oratory won him second place -- it seemed that conference organizers had thrown in with Perry, who gave a well-received speech that focused mostly on economic issues.
Even the remarks of Bill Bennett and former Fox News Channel host Glenn Beck could be construed to be of a piece with the strategy. Bennett, a Roman Catholic, admonished the Values Voter audience that it was their duty to "be magnanimous," tempering his scolding with a little liberal-lashing.
"Let us be true Americans," Bennett said. "Let us not indulge in any bigotry. The favorite bigotry of the left, of course, is that bigotry against people who publicly love their God, and publicly love their country."
But, he said he feared that Jeffress' remarks about Romney amounted to bigotry. "And I would say to Pastor Jeffress...,you did Rick Perry no good, sir, in what you said."
He then made a crack about his Catholicism, reminding the crowd that his faith predated theirs. For the strategists of the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, Bennett was the perfect messenger for this public chiding. He is appreciated by evangelicals for his identification with Ronald Reagan, in whose administration he served, and for his anti-choice, anti-gay positions. But the love he receives from these Christians is that reserved for the exceptional outsider, the lovable uncle by marriage, and one whose views in certain areas can be chalked up to a faith they do not share. So while his admonition played well in the media, reflecting well on the conference, it likely fell on deaf ears in the conference hall.
Glenn Beck, a Mormon himself, then granted the conference absolution in a speech that otherwise demonized liberals in countless ways, and in which Beck claimed that America was engaged in a race war initiated by African Americans, and that the "violent left" would soon fill the streets with murder and mayhem. (A full description of Beck's speech requires a disquisition of its own in a separate article.)
"Because I have the right to freedom of speech, I have the responsibility to defend the rights of others to speak as they wish, even when it comes at my own peril -- even when it is the hardest thing...." Beck said. "As people have come onto this stage and been for or against, I guess, members of my faith, I celebrate their right to say those things in America. Let me say this: I am a proud member of the Church of Jesus Christ."
He chose to leave out the second half of his church's name, "of Latter-Day Saints."
"Jesus Christ is my lord and savior; he redeemed me, fully and completely," Beck said. "I am a proud member of that faith, but more importantly, I am a member of the American religion."
Media Remain Clueless
As pundits made their rounds on the Sunday shows, the conventional wisdom suggested that Rick Perry had blundered badly in his insensitivity on the question of Romney's religion -- that it made him look intolerant to embrace the likes of Jeffress. But Rick Perry right now isn't running for the media-conferred award of Mr. Congeniality. He's running for the Republican presidential nomination, a road that runs through right-wing-evangelical country before it ever gets to the places were tolerance is perceived as a good thing.
I asked Bryan Fischer if he thought a Republican presidential contender had to be an evangelical Christian in order to win the nomination.
"If I was a candidate for president, that would be a concern," Fischer said, noting the routing of Democrats in the 2010 midterm congressional elections. "Evangelical voters turned out in record numbers in 2010. I mean, the change of leadership that we saw in the House of Representatives last fall was largely driven by evangelical voter turnout -- the makeup of the Tea Party."
I noted that the politicians who spoke to the Values Voter summit this year made little mention of the Tea Party.
"We'll hear about the Tea Party in November of 2012," he said.