And yet, at least according to the Constitution, there isn't supposed to be such a test. Article VI states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Whatever happened to the conservative credo about hewing to the words of the Founding Fathers?
Romney has been dogged by the Mormon "issue" since he announced for the presidency five years ago. He has a right to feel frustrated. His faith should not be a disqualifying factor "by theological definition." I recognize that Perry is desperate to salvage his candidacy, but it is patently unconstitutional - and, according to many mainline Christian leaders, un-Christian - to engage in religious discrimination on the stump.
The bigotry tactic may be shrewd in the short run, of course. Roughly 45 percent of all Republican primary voters are conservative evangelical Christians, and they're probably as wary of Romney today as they were in 2008, when he drew only 11 percent of evangelicals' vote in the crucial South Carolina primary - and failed to crack 20 percent in any Southern primary. Even outside the South, the "cult" perception is endemic; in a summer Gallup poll, 22 percent of Americans said they would never vote for a Mormon.
But I find that unfair. It's akin to saying a Jew can't be president simply because he or she is a Jew - an argument most of us would swiftly dismiss as bigotry. Eleven years ago, we were poised to put Joe Lieberman a heartbeat away from the presidency, in the belief that nothing in his non-Christian faith would impede his ability to govern in the secular realm. Why should the standard be any different for Romney?
Granted, the roots of Mormonism might seem strange to outsiders - that Joseph Smith unearthed a book of golden plates from a New York hillside in 1827 with the help of an angel and translated hieroglyphics that detailed the true Christian faith, including Jesus' coming to North America after his resurrection. But most faiths have elements that look strange to outsiders - the parting of the Red Sea, for example.
And, of course, there has never been a shred of evidence that Romney would skew his secular decision-making to reflect the literal or metaphoric precepts of his faith - just as there was no basis, in 1960, for the widespread concern that John F. Kennedy would make decisions only after checking first with the pope in Rome.
Jeffress offered no evidence that any of Romney's policy stances had been influenced or crafted by the Mormon Church; his membership in the church is deemed the deal-breaker. It's no wonder Peter Wehner, a former George W. Bush adviser, wrote last weekend that Jeffress was "embarrassingly unequipped for American politics," and it's a sign of Perry's politically tin ear that he's still standing with the pastor.
Gov. Christie got it right Tuesday when he endorsed Romney and rebuked Jeffress: "These kind of religious matters have nothing to do with the quality of someone's ability to lead. You have to evaluate their record, evaluate their character, their integrity. Not based upon their religious beliefs." If only Romney's GOP rivals would grow spines and say the same thing.
How nice it would be if someone cited the wisdom of the Founders, as reflected in Article VI. How nice if someone told the evangelical Christians it's hypocritical to assail Mormonism, given that these same Christians frequently depict themselves as victims of bigotry. But that won't happen, not when so many evangelicals' votes are up for grabs. In his bid to make the Republicans a more tolerant party, Mitt Romney is on his own.
Contact columnist Dick Polman at email@example.com
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