At the Values Voters Summit in Washington, D.C., Rev. Robert Jeffress, a Gov. Rick Perry loyalist who introduced the Texas Republican, made news by declaring Mormonism a cult and former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) a cultist:
"Mitt Romney's a good, moral person, but he's not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity," said Jeffress.
At least that last part of Jeffress' statement is descriptively true: Evangelical Christians have long regarded Mormonism as heresy and a general no-goodism. Iin this, cartoon prosleytizer Jack T. Chick is joined by Arthur Conan Doyle (spoiler alert: the first Sherlock Holmes story, Study in Scarlet, is actually a study in Mormon deception) and Zane Grey (whose famous Riders of the Purple Sage revolves around a Warren Jeffs-style bad guy).
Perry is distancing himself from Rev. Jeffress as flagging would-be nominee (and nominal Mormon though probable secret Episcopalian), former Gov. Jon Huntsman (R-Utah) has called the episode "the most ridiculous sideshow in recent politics."
Here's the International Business Times' recap of Rick Perry's Peter-like denial (three times!) of Jeffress' comments:
Perry, who flew to Tiffin, Iowa, for a barbeque after his Washington speech, was asked three times whether he agreed with Jeffress' evaluation of Mormonism.
"No," Perry said to the first question, CBSNews.com reported Friday night. To the second, Perry said: "No, I've already answered that back there. I told him no." Asked by a third reporter whether he associated himself with the pastor's remarks, Perry said: "I already answered that question," before being whisked out the door.
Back in 2006, Slate's Jacob Weisberg boldly announced that he wouldn't vote for true-believing Scientologists: "Such views are disqualifying because they're dogmatic, irrational, and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is."
He said the same about Latter Day Saints too:
I wouldn't vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism. The LDS church holds that Joseph Smith, directed by the angel Moroni, unearthed a book of golden plates buried in a hillside in Western New York in 1827. The plates were inscribed in "reformed" Egyptian hieroglyphics—a nonexistent version of the ancient language that had yet to be decoded. If you don't know the story, it's worth spending some time with Fawn Brodie's wonderful biography No Man Knows My History. Smith was able to dictate his "translation" of the Book of Mormon first by looking through diamond-encrusted decoder glasses and then by burying his face in a hat with a brown rock at the bottom of it. He was an obvious con man. Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don't want him running the country….
One may object that all religious beliefs are irrational—what's the difference between Smith's "seer stone" and the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea? But Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. It's Scientology plus 125 years. Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference. The world's greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor.
The objection there—that newer religions are more clearly fakes than older ones, which are made up too—strikes me as weak and situational. That is, it's more designed to call attention to a possible negative about a candidate who could go mainstream than express serious doubts about the Romney's reality testing. One may observe that people such as Rev. Jeffress at least really believe that Mormons are perpetrating a fraud that will land them in hell rather than the White House.
But as a lapsed Catholic (and if you think Jack T. Chick disses Mormons, check out what he's got to say about a church regularly identified by evangelicals as the Mother of Abominations) with a passing acquaintance with the Bible (St. Jerome and King James versions), I can tell you that I worry more about presidential wannabes's attitudes toward rendering unto Caesar than what version of Baal worship they may be in to.
The Atlantic's James Fallows offers up this gloss on the matter:
For people to come out and say that they won't back a candidate because he's Mormon and therefore a "cult" member is no better than saying "I'd never trust a Jew" or "a black could never do the job" or "women should stay in their place" or "Latinos? Let 'em go back home." Maybe it makes things more "honest" for people to be open about their anti-Mormonism and discreet about other prejudices. The only two biases people aren't embarrassed expressing publicly are anti-Southern (the "Bubba factor") and anti-Mormon. Still, it's bigotry.
Well said, though come on already: Being anti-Mormon and anti-Bubba are the last acceptable prejudices? If that's true, then what the hell am I, a half-Irish, half-Italian double-genetic loser doing working on Columbus Day? Because the last acceptable prejudice in America, as evidenced by the immense outpouring of contempt for the guidos and guidas (as it happens, my mother's maiden name) on Jersey Shore, is to make fun of spaghetti benders. Especially if they're in the Garden State (and let us be clear: the cast of Jersey Shore is mostly made up of filthy stinkin' New Yorkers).
Read Tim Cavanaugh's epic "E Pluribus Umbrage: The Long Happy Life of America's anti-defamation industry." Written in 2002 and a grand tour of an America still riven by debates over whether Irish need not apply, it reads like it was written this past weekend.
Or maybe next weekend.