If Mitt Romney had run for governor of South Carolina against outspoken conservative evangelical Mark Sanford, Dallas First Baptist Church pastor (and famous Rick Perry fan) Robert Jeffress would have loudly campaigned for Sanford over the “cultist” Mitt Romney.
If Mitt Romney had run for senate from Nevada against outspoken evangelical John Ensign, Robert Jeffress would have been by Ensign’s side, telling Christians that if they were truly “born again,” they’d vote for Ensign.
If Mitt Romney had run for senate from Louisiana, against Catholic David Vitter, Robert Jeffress might have had a tougher choice, but the odds are that he’d hold his nose and campaign for a Catholic over a Mormon.
And in each case he would have been shockingly, embarrassingly wrong. Mark Sanford disappeared and pursued his alleged true love in Argentina, John Ensign had an affair with the wife of one of his top aides, and David Vitter was a client of the famous “D.C. Madam.” Religious affiliation is no guarantor of virtue.
Pastor Jeffress also has said that God will judge America if it elects a Mormon president because Mormons allegedly worship a “false god.” By his reasoning then, overwhelmingly Mormon Utah (the most religiously homogenous state in the nation) must be some sort of hellhole, a blasted wasteland in the heart of America.
Not so fast. Utah has a lower divorce rate, higher median household income, and substantially lower unemployment than my beloved home state of Tennessee, which also happens to be the home of Pastor Jeffress’s Southern Baptist Convention as well as the evangelical music and publishing industries.
Religious affiliation appears to be no guarantor of earthly success.
In my years as an evangelical conservative lawyer and activist, I have learned (and lived) the painful reality that we evangelicals are all too often no better - and sometimes much worse - than the very people we seek to convert. If God’s strength is truly made perfect in weakness, then we surely give God many occasions to show his power. The gracious gift of knowledge of God and relationship with Him should fill us with humility - not arrogance.
In short, self-identification as evangelical should be irrelevant in presidential politics - neither an asset nor a liability. When voting for president, we should judge candidates by their competence, character, and ideas. Indeed, those are the very factors that drove me to support Mitt Romney for president in the 2008 cycle (when I helped found Evangelicals for Mitt) and to redouble my efforts for 2012, when our nation is in even greater distress.
You want competence? As we search for a president who can lead us from deep economic decline and restore American power and confidence, who can do that better than a man who has specialized in the turnaround, in both the private and public sectors?
Mitt Romney was named CEO of the struggling Bain & Company and brought it all the way back from the brink, leaving it financially healthy and prosperous. He helped found Bain Capital and turned it into an economic powerhouse, creating thousands of private-sector jobs and leaving it with $4 billion under management.
After his private sector success, he was called to save the Salt Lake City Olympics - the first post-9/11 games - from corruption and fiscal collapse. He turned an almost $400 million deficit into a $100 million profit - all while maintaining safety and security in tense times. Then, as governor of Massachusetts, he turned a $3 billion budget deficit into a $700 million surplus and left office with a 4.7 percent state unemployment rate.
What about character? Faithful to his wife and an exemplary father to his sons, there has never been even a hint of scandal around Mitt. And while his recent conversion to the pro-life cause is notorious, his consistent pro-life record as governor of one of America’s most liberal states is unfortunately less known. He won a political leadership award from Massachusetts Citizens for Life after he vetoed expanded access to the so-called “morning after” abortion pill and vetoed a bill permitting embryonic stem cell research in Massachusetts.
Does this add up to a man evangelicals can support? Absolutely - so long as they put aside Robert Jeffress’s bad theology and resist the urge towards religious tribalism. After all, where does such thinking lead? If religious tests dominate the evangelical world, candidates will have an incentive to wear the trappings of faith - even if their heart lies elsewhere.
Article 6 of the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office. This Article may only bind the government, but it also establishes a worthy principle for its citizens. When deciding how to cast your vote, judge the man - not his church.
David French is a religious liberties attorney, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the co-founder of Evangelicals for Mitt.