Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex., who has a knack for stacking the crowd and the vote, won the Values Voter Summit this weekend with 37 percent of those casting ballots. Herman Cain (who delivered a stemwinder on Friday night) came in second. And third, with another surprise showing (he came in fourth in the Ames straw poll this summer), was Rick Santorum. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was down in the pack with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) at 8 percent. Perry, once again, was unsuccessful in garnering support from the segment of the GOP essential to his success in the primary race.
But the big news was not the vote itself. On Friday, the appearance of Pastor Robert Jeffress set off a chain of events that may be remembered long after the vote results are forgotten. Jeffress in his introduction of Perry voiced his previously known anti-Mormon views. Afterward, he doubled down in remarks to reporters. First the speech:
Do we want a candidate who is skilled in rhetoric or one who is skilled in leadership? Do we want a candidate who is a conservative out of convenience or one who is a conservative out of deep conviction? Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person — or one who is a born-again follower of the lord Jesus Christ?”
Then he told Politico:
Texas evangelical leader Robert Jeffress, the megachurch pastor who introduced Rick Perry at the Values Voter Summit, said . . . he does not believe Mitt Romney is a Christian.
Jeffress described Romney’s Mormon faith as a “cult” and said evangelicals had only one real option in the 2012 primaries.
“That is a mainstream view, that Mormonism is a cult,” Jeffress told reporters here. “Every true, born-again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.”
Asked by Politico if he believed Romney is a Christian, Jeffress answered: “No.”
The Christian leader warned that in a general-election race between Romney and Obama, he believes many evangelicals will stay home and leave the GOP nominee without their votes.
Jeffress said that he himself would vote for Romney.
He also said that he had not spoken with Perry about his views on Romney’s faith and was “in no way speaking for him.”
The initial response by the Perry team was pathetically insufficient. Perry spokesman Mark Miner threw out this bit of moral vacuity: “The governor doesn’t judge what is in the heart and soul of others.” But what about the words? Is he mute on expressions of overt prejudice? Does he reject the comments as bigoted? Miner e-mailed me on Friday afternoon: “As I said, the governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult. The governor doesn’t get into the business of judging other people’s hearts or souls. He leaves that to God. The governor’s campaign is about uniting Americans of all backgrounds behind a pro-growth, jobs agenda for this country.” In other words, when presented with such overt prejudice (and the potential loss of evangelical support), Perry went mute. While Perry did not select Jeffress to introduce him, he did approve the choice.
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, on Friday afternoon, tweeted: “A number of my close personal friends are Mormon. I find Pastor Robert Jeffries’s intro of Gov. Perry totally offensive and repugnant.” That was the voice of moral clarity sadly missing from Perry’s response.
On Saturday one of the social conservative and intellectual eminencies of the conservative movement, Bill Bennett, took matters into his own hands at the summit:
Bennett told the crowd of evangelicals Saturday morning, “Do not give voice to bigotry. I’m thinking of the words of Pastor Jeffress. Do not give voice to bigotry.” In endorsing Perry on Friday at the Values Voters conference, Jeffress said he doesn’t believe Romney is a conservative and thinks Mormonism is a cult.
From the stage Saturday morning, just minutes before Romney’s arrival to speak to the group, Bennett said that Jeffress’s remarks stepped on the message of Perry and the other Republican presidential hopefuls who spoke Friday. “You did Rick Perry no good sir, in what you had to say.”
I asked Bennett about the reaction he received. He emailed me: “I thought it was generally positive in the hall and I had a lot of good comments walking through the hotel. I think this whole business might occasion a needed discussion, and I would trust most of these folks to come out on it right in the end.”
Later on Saturday, Romney called out religious bigotry, referencing yet another speaker at the event:
Romney aimed his criticism at Bryan Fischer, a controversial official at the American Family Association who was scheduled to follow Romney in the program.
Fischer, a leader at the Mississippi-based AFA, has blamed homosexuals for the Holocaust, suggested banning Muslims from serving in the military and has strongly attacked Mormonism.
He argued only days ago that the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion doesn’t apply to Mormons, declaring: “The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the free exercise of the Christian religion.”
Romney didn’t address Fischer by name or specify which of his remarks were offensive. But the message was unambiguous.
“Our values ennoble the citizen and strengthen the nation. We should remember that decency and civility are values too,” Romney said. “One of the speakers who will follow me today, has crossed that line, I think. Poisonous language doesn’t advance our cause. It’s never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind.”
He continued: “The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate. The task before us is to focus on the conservative beliefs and the values that unite us — let no agenda narrow our vision or drive us apart.”
A Romney adviser confirmed that his remark about “poisonous language” was referring to Fischer.
Although the candidates other than Romney were reluctant to address the issue of religious bigotry, some prominent conservatives were frank and outspoken. Gary Bauer, perhaps the most influential Christian conservative, told me late Saturday that Jeffress had made a fundamental error. “For years I have urged Christians to be active engaged citizens. Our country desperately needs more citizens who understand that our liberty comes from God and that only a virtuous people can be free.” He continued: “Picking a candidate for public office is not the same thing however as selecting a pastor or rabbi. Politics is about picking someone who shares your views on public policy. Millions of Americans who do not worship the same way as I do none the less agree with me on the sanctity of life, the definition of marriage, America’s role in the world and fiscal responsibility.” As for Romney in particular, Bauer had these words of counsel for his fellow conservatives: “The attacks on Gov. Romney’s faith this weekend will only bring comfort to the Obama political machine and their radical secular allies who oppose virtually everything evangelicals and Mormons believe.”
Professor Robert George, a conservative legal and cultural scholar who previously moderated a candidate forum in South Carolina, had a similar reaction. He told me, “This late in the season of our experience, we should know that what matters is not a candidate’s religious affiliation, but rather the depth of his or her understanding of the “self-evident truths” at the foundation of our republic, and the strength of his or her commitment to honor those truths in governing. It doesn’t matter whether a candidate is a Protestant or a Catholic, a Mormon or Muslim or Jew.” Instead he said, “What we need to know is whether he or she possesses wisdom, vision, integrity, and courage. We need to ask whether he or she will protect the security of the nation and, from conviction, honor the principles of limited government, the rule of law, republican democracy, private property and the market economy, equality of opportunity, respect for civil liberties and personal responsibility, the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions, and the integrity and autonomy of core nongovernmental institutions on which the health of civil society (and, to a large extent, the care of those in need) vitally depends, beginning with the marriage-based family and communities of religious faith.”
So we have here a contrast between moral leadership (by Bennett, Bauer, and George), on one hand, and timidity, on the other. Not only was Perry AWOL in denouncing Jeffress, but some of his prominent supporters (Govs. Bobby Jindal and Brian Sandoval) ignored requests for comment. (That might not sit well with Sandoval’s numerous Mormon constituents.) Another Perry backer Henry Barbour would only say to me via email, “I don’t think we need a religious litmus test for someone to serve as President.” And Cain’s campaign likewise ducked the issue entirely when I asked for reaction. To put it mildly, in this instance many conservative leaders showed courage while Republican pols demonstrated a shameful lack of moral leadership.