During the 2012 election, I was a reporter in Phoenix covering Arizona politics. Arizona was one of the states most severely hit by the economic downturn, and voters on both sides of the aisle were looking to get behind candidates who could deliver the prosperity that many believed was promised as part of the American Dream.
At the top of the Republican ticket was Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor with significant business experience. And Jeff Flake, then a representative from Arizona, was hoping the state's voters would send him to the Senate.
But despite holding many of the values mirrored by many in the GOP at that time — opposition to same-sex marriage, opposition to abortion and conservative views on business and the military — the two men ran into resistance from some white evangelicals, arguably one of the most influential voting blocs in the Republican Party.
Both men were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Washington Post's Philip Rucker wrote about it in 2011:
At a gathering of Christian conservative voters in Washington on Friday, evangelical megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, chosen to introduce Texas Gov. Rick Perry, attacked Romney by telling reporters the Mormon Church is “a cult” and “Mormonism is not Christianity.” Perry quickly distanced himself from that view, telling reporters in Iowa that he did not agree with the remarks.
When Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, addressed the same summit Saturday, he never uttered the word “Mormon.” He spoke of the nation’s “heritage of religious faith and tolerance,” but not of his own faith.
Although Romney won the Republican primary in Arizona, he didn't win white evangelical voters, according to Pew. White evangelicals got behind former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a self-described “evangelical Catholic.”
Both of the top candidates in the Republican Senate primary were Mormons. Arizona Republicans ultimately chose Flake.
Jeffress never backed down from his comments about the Mormon faith, although he did support Romney in the general election. But just one election cycle later, Jeffress, pastor of the 13,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas, ended up vouching for the salvation of a very different candidate: Donald Trump.
“I am grateful we have a president who believes in the power of prayer,” he said. Trump is “the most powerful man in the world, he is not too proud to bow his head in the Oval Office, and ask God for help.”
That Flake — a former missionary and the son of a bishop — feels that there's no place for him in his state's GOP is in part because of a shift in some white evangelicals in the Trump era exemplified by Jeffress and other white evangelical voters. More white evangelicals chose Trump in 2016 than Romney in 2012, according to Pew.
In the 2012 primary, Jeffress attacked Romney's faith. In the 2016 primary, Jeffress told the Dallas Observer that focusing on Trump's faith — he's a Presbyterian protestant who said he doesn't pray for forgiveness — shouldn't be a primary concern.
The Bible does not give a checklist for who to vote for, because when the Bible was written there was no such thing as voting. So I think certainly a candidate’s faith is one consideration, but it’s not always the most important consideration. I think character, I think competency, leadership … I think electability is an issue. I think you have to factor all of those into the equation.
In the same interview, Jeffress, who is now on an advisory council of evangelical leaders, went on to say that when it comes to making some policies, he could care less about Trump's temperament, tone and vocabulary:
A couple weeks ago, Max Lucado, a very respected Christian, wrote an op-ed denouncing Trump because of his tone and because of his vocabulary. When I’m looking for a leader who’s gonna sit across the negotiating table from a nuclear Iran, or who’s gonna be intent on destroying ISIS, I couldn’t care less about that leader’s temperament or his tone or his vocabulary. Frankly, I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find. And I think that’s the feeling of a lot of evangelicals.
Jeffress is not the only prominent evangelical who has led his followers to embrace Trump's worldview, which Christian conservative Michael Gerson writes is problematic and actually goes against “the best of the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
The religious right is making itself a pitiful appendage to this squalid agenda. If Christian conservatives are loyal enough, Bannon promises that they can be “the folks who saved the Judeo-Christian West.” All that is required is to abandon the best of the Judeo-Christian tradition: a belief in the inherent value and dignity of every life.
Just four years ago, a solidly conservative incumbent like Flake could count on Arizona voters to back him over Kelli Ward, a former state lawmaker criticized for supporting conspiracy theories and making controversial comments about the health and age of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). But times have changed, as Flake acknowledged in his Post op-ed.
We have again forgotten who we are supposed to be. There is a sickness in our system — and it is contagious.
How many more disgraceful public feuds with Gold Star families can we witness in silence before we ourselves are disgraced?
How many more times will we see moral ambiguity in the face of shocking bigotry and shrug it off?
How much more damage to our democracy and to the institutions of American liberty do we need to witness in silence before we count ourselves as complicit in that damage?
As of now, it seems like the best people to answer Flake's questions are the millions of Trump voters, including 80 percent of white evangelicals, who sent the president to the White House — and obviously, Trump himself.