Southern Baptist preacher Robert Jeffress called Mormonism a cult, a slam at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (inset), Parham observes. (Photos: inset, Matthew Reichbach; main photo, FirstDallas.org)
Southern Baptist preacher Robert Jeffress injected poisonous language into the public square, attacking the faith of one Republican presidential candidate and praising the faith of another.
He called Mormonism a cult, a slam at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and cheered the evangelical Christian faith of Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Introducing Perry, Jeffress told Christian Right leaders and activists at the Values Voters Summit that Perry had biblical values.
"Do we want someone who is a conservative out of convenience, or one who is a conservative out of conviction? Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or one who is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ? I believe that in Rick Perry we have a candidate who is a proven leader, a true conservative and a committed follower of Christ," said Jeffress, pounding the lectern.
"I think those of us who are born-again followers of Christ should always prefer a competent Christian to a competent – to a competent non-Christian like Mitt Romney. So that's why I'm enthusiastic about Perry," said the pastor of the historic First Baptist Church of Dallas in an interview with CNN about his reference to Mormonism as a cult.
"I ... believe that as Christians, we have the duty to prefer and select Christians as our leaders," said Jeffress.
"When it gets down to it, we need to remember this. In 2008, 30 million evangelical Christians sat at home and didn't vote. Barack Obama won by 10 million votes. Whether you like it or not, Mitt Romney will not energize evangelical Christians," he said.
Christian clergy and politicians in presidential campaigns have been attacking Mormon politicians for their faith since 1976.
As cited in an EthicsDaily.com editorial in December 2007, one of Jimmy Carter's political backers for the Democratic Party's nomination in 1976 played the Mormon card.
Carter was locked in a tight race with Congressman Morris "Mo" Udall, who had parted ways with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over race relations.
Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, a Carter supporter, said to a large audience of black Baptist ministers: "I'm asking you to make a choice between a man from Georgia who fights to let you in his church, and a man from Arizona whose church won't even let you in the back door."
Carter refused to repudiate Coleman's comments and won the Michigan primary.
Thirty years later, former Baptist preacher and Arkansas Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee ran TV ads in Iowa in 2007 about how his faith defined him. Romney was the target of those ads.
The TV ad said, "Faith doesn't just influence me; it really defines me. I don't have to wake up every day wondering, 'What do I need to believe?'"
"Christian Leader" then emerged in large, boldface, white letters on the screen.
"Let us never sacrifice our principles for anybody's politics. Not now, not ever," said Huckabee with applause in the background.
Then he repeated his commitment to faith: "We believe in some things. We stand by those things. We live or die by those things."
Huckabee was countering those who said he was unelectable by whistling to conservative Christians to support him.
As EthicsDaily.com said in December 2007 about Romney: "Religion should be neither a qualifier nor a disqualifier for public office. But his religion is and will continue to be an issue among practicing charismatic, fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical Christians, and those who are nominally involved in those churches."
Four years later, conservative Christians are again making Romney's religion an issue, as they have made an issue of President Barack Obama's faith.
Brian Kaylor first broke the story of conservative Christian leaders who began plotting in 2010 to defeat Obama.
That meeting was thick with Southern Baptist fundamentalists, some of whom plotted the defeat of President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Conservative Christians met again in June 2011. Perry spoke at the start of their closed-door summit.
Attending that meeting was Jeffress, who a month earlier appeared on a Fox News program questioning Obama's Christian faith and hinting that he was a Muslim.
Conservative Christian leaders, such as Franklin Graham, have long questioned if Obama was a Christian and fed the fire about the authenticity of his citizenship.
In July, Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said on his radio program that Obama was "living like a playboy" and spoke blatant untruthfulness about Obama, planting seeds of doubt about Obama's moral values.
In August, conservative Christians joined Perry at a prayer rally, which was really a political event with a see-through religious veil.
"His heart is in the right place," said Land, claiming that Perry would appeal to evangelicals and that "this is the most important election in American history since 1860."
Jeffress' attack on Romney's faith, Land's smear of Obama and their blessing on Perry is part of a concerted effort by conservative Christian leaders to determine the 2012 presidential election. They want to elect one of their own. They have every right to do that.
However, they cross the line when they hint that they speak for God and that their faith expression is the only righteous one.
For them, fundamentalist Christianity is a qualifier for the presidency, that narrow brand of belief that preaches a privatized, individualized faith, finds the free enterprise system in the Bible and ignores the biblical witness' mandate for social justice.
They see Mormonism as a disqualifier. And in fact, they see any faith other than their own fundamentalist one as a disqualifier. True to the definition of fundamentalism, the only "real faith" is the one they hold.
Romney can find cold comfort in knowing that many conservative Christians find his faith as objectionable as they do Obama's Christian faith.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.