Anti-Mormonism may be the X factor in the 2012 election. Little-studied and hard to quantify, it is a potential drag on Mitt Romney's candidacy but pops into public consciousness only sporadically. A couple of weeks ago, British author Martin Amis and journalist Jacob Weisberg shared a grin at what Amis called Romney's "weird" faith in a video interview on Slate.com.
Last November, Robert Jeffress. an evangelical Protestant pastor close to Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry, called Mormonism a cult and told reporters that “every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.”
Rev. Jeffress’s outburst made headlines pretty much nationwide. The latest manifestation, though, reported in the Post on Tuesday, has been strangely overlooked since. I refer to a Labor Day weekend meeting among two dozen of the most influential African American pastors in swing-state Virginia's Tidewater region, during which the clergymen discussed attacking Romney's Mormonism. Their purpose for doing so was even more remarkable: to rekindle enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket among black Christian voters disappointed with President Obama's support of gay marriage.
"We can't tell people who to vote for, but we can certainly point out the differences," the Rev. Lin Hill of Bethany Baptist Church, in Chesapeake, told the Post's Peter Wallsten. "Our president has declared Jesus Christ to be his Lord and savior, while his opponent denies the deity of Christ." Hill doubles as a board member of the Chesapeake Democratic party committee.
Hill and his fellow ministers passed around a one-page chart contrasting "Biblical Christianity" with Mormonism. They agreed to produce a voter education guide based in part on this document.
Romney, of course, professes the divinity of Christ, whom the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints considers "the savior of the world and the son of God."
Mormonism barred blacks from full participation in church responsibilities until 1978. Thus, it may be understandable that a group of black ministers would have qualms about the Mormon church as such. But it is no fairer to hold Mitt Romney individually accountable for this long-renounced church policy than it would be to blame a Catholic candidate for, say, that church's past transgressions or its controversial stands on gay rights and abortion today.
As it happens, even the Mormons' history on race is complicated; the founding prophet, Joseph Smith, ran for president in 1844 on a platform that called for the abolition of slavery by 1850. Mitt Romney's father, former governor of Michigan George Romney, was both a Mormon leader and a champion of civil rights who risked his own political future trying to steer the Republican Party in that direction.
In sum: a group of pro-Obama ministers seem to be trying to counteract their parishioners' dislike of gay marriage, and its negative impact on Obama's re-election chances, partly by spreading distortions and fomenting religious animus against Romney.
This is not pretty, and it's not right — no matter who does it.