It certainly lived up to its billing. Hailed as "the most exciting meeting there is in Washington"--the testimonial is from former Education Secretary Bill Bennett--the Values Voter Summit is a kind of Station of the Cross for Republican presidential candidates. The gathering at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in early October produced more than its share of excitement when Robert Jeffress, a Dallas Evangelical megapastor, introduced Rick Perry and then told reporters that Mormonism--the faith of Mitt Romney, Perry's chief rival--is a "cult" and that "those of us who are born-again followers of Christ should always prefer a competent Christian to a competent non-Christian like Mitt Romney."
In the world according to Jeffress, Perry is a "follower of Jesus Christ" but Romney isn't, and that alone--note that Jeffress concedes Romney's competence--should disqualify him from receiving Christians' votes. The pastor is thus doing something the founders refused to do: he is trying to impose a religious test on American politics.
Which is about the last thing on earth we need at the moment. (Why should we be talking about Job instead of jobs?) Coming in October 2011, some three months before Iowa and South Carolina, the episode suggests that Romney is gaining, not losing, strength--and, perhaps more important, that American believers may have to step up to save religion from the religious.
If I were Romney, I would feel flattered and validated by the assault at the Omni Shoreham: Jeffress's attack is a sure sign that the former Massachusetts governor is the front runner for the Republican nomination. In 2007, Romney sought to defuse the issue of his faith with a speech at the George H.W. Bush library in College Station, Texas, in which he made clear that as President, he would be loyal to the country and the Constitution, not his church. Still, the religious conservative Mike Huckabee took Iowa, foreclosing the possibility that Romney might emerge as the main alternative to John McCain. Since Romney faded relatively quickly, there was no major occasion for a high-profile strike like the one Jeffress launched.
Not so this year. Attacks on a politician's identity--questioning Romney's religion, say, or Obama's birthplace--tend to come when an opponent is desperate and can't sell himself. (Perry spokesmen have said Perry doesn't believe Mormonism is a cult and "doesn't judge what is in the heart and soul of others.") As a political matter, having to put up with some Mormon bashing is probably a price worth paying--if you are Romney. The rest of us, however, should not have to endure a political climate suffused with religious bigotry.