Rev. Robert Jeffress, a prominent Texas Evangelical pastor, stirred up more than a political hornet’s nest last week at a conservative “Voters Values Summit,” where he introduced Texas Gov. Rick Perry as a “genuine follower of Jesus Christ,” a comment which in itself contains disturbing implications. Later, in an interview at the summit, he made even more headlines when he described the Mormon religion of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as “not Christian” and a “cult.”
Gov. Perry made it clear that he did not share Rev. Jeffress’s views on Gov. Romney and his Mormon faith, but he did not repudiate the political endorsement he received from Jeffress. Perry’s faint-heartedness in this matter stands in sharp contrast to the incident in the 2008 presidential campaign in which Sen. John McCain fired a supporter who introduced him with a reference that implied that President Barack Obama, who is Christian, was a Muslim. (Jeffress ironically and conveniently ignored Obama’s Christianity when he also said, “I think that it is a spiritual imperative that we unseat Barack Obama.”)
Regarding the issue which got most of the headlines, Jeffress’s insult of the Mormon faith, Gov. Romney himself has faced the matter squarely as long ago as the 2008 campaign. At that time, he addressed a group of evangelical Christians to affirm that his Mormon faith, which is officially “the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints,” does consider itself to be Christian, and that as John F. Kennedy said about his Catholic faith during the 1960 campaign, “where he goes to church on Sunday” will not affect his conduct as President.
The fact that in 2011 any candidate should have to defend his or her religious faith is itself a sad commentary. The United States Constitution, which many conservatives have taken to invoking, makes it explicit that there should be “no religious test” for Americans seeking any public office. (Article VI, last sentence). If it is possible to “blaspheme” (in a secular way) the U.S. Constitution, Jeffress’s outrageous reference to a candidate being “a genuine follower of Jesus Christ” as an implied” qualification” for the presidency, would seem to fit that definition.
Jeffress’s comments also mean that ANY non-Christian candidate would be unqualified, or at least less acceptable, in comparison to any “genuine believer in Jesus Christ.” Members of the Jewish religion do not accept either the divinity or Messianic status of Jesus of Nazareth. Does that mean that Joseph Lieberman was not acceptable because of his religion, when Al Gore selected him as his running mate in 2000? Does Jeffress believe that the three Jewish Justices on the current United States Supreme Court should not have been named because they are not Christians? Does Jeffress feel that Rep. Eric Cantor R-Va. the House Majority Whip, does not deserve to hold office because he is Jewish?
Back in 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson nominated Louis D. Brandeis to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, the nomination was denounced on the Senate floor with lurid anti-Semitic remarks. In 1924, New York Governor Al Smith was denied the Democratic nomination by the Ku Klux Klan delegates to the national convention, and in 1928, when he was the nominee, his Catholic faith was denounced as a “cult.”
Any American citizen – Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or non-believer – has the right to seek the presidency of the United States if he or she meets the defined qualifications for the office, which do not include one’s religion.
Jeffress would do well to heed the founding principles and words of our nation. Gov. Perry would do well to steer clear of demagogues who choose to ignore American precepts of law and equity.