I truly admire it when public figures bluntly state their true views on a subject. There is so much hedging, retracting, and re-positioning in modern politics that it can be hard to pin down anyone on anything. So when Robert Jeffress, pastor of the 10,000-strong First Baptist Church of Dallas, introduced and endorsed presidential contender Rick Perry at the Values Voters Summit it was something of a jolt to hear him publicly proclaim what many Christians secretly profess.
“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.”
There it is: “Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.” That’s the bottom line. No matter how conservative you are, how in-line your values are with the Republican party, a massive chunk of the grass-roots and conservative king-makers won’t embrace you if you aren’t (the right kind of) Christian. As Andrew Sullivan says, “If you turn a political party into a church, as the GOP essentially now is, sectarianism will eventually emerge.” There is only one exception to this “don’t vote for non-Christians” rule, and that is if the only choice is between Romney and Obama.
“I’m going to instruct, I’m going to advise people that it is much better to vote for a non-Christian who embraces biblical values than to vote for a professing Christian like Barack Obama who embraces un-biblical values.”
Of course many conservative Christians have been trying to make the argument that Obama isn’t actually a Christian for years now. So in their minds it would be non-Christian vs non-Christian (In which case thumbs-up Romney? I guess?).
According to a Pew poll, 68% of Americans are ready to vote for a Mormon president. That support or understanding is built on a “big tent” view of Christianity. If Mormons are just another flavor of Christianity, then it’s OK to vote for them (and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been on a charm offensive for years). However, that support evaporates if you aren’t seen as religious. 61% of voters see atheism as a negative when considering a candidate, no doubt numbers are similar if you have religion but are part of a “cult” and not seen as part of the Judeo-Christian mainstream. As Jeffress would say: “Private citizens can impose all kinds of religious tests.” As it stands now a third of white evangelical Protestants (34%) say they are less likely to support a Mormon. That may not seem like a lot, but it’s a potentially damaging percentage when you take into account the fact that more than half of Republicans are evangelicals.
This is a problem for the Republicans. Not because they prefer Christians, but because Christianity is losing its hold on America, or “softening” as Duke Divinity School professor Mark Chaves would put it. If you become the party of “Christians only” (outside of rare exceptions) you’re setting yourself up for long-term demographic irrelevance. As Americans become more comfortable with atheists, agnostics, and minority religions, the more a political party whose grass-roots demand theological purity suffers. Right now we are in a place where it seems only a Christian (or possibly a Jew) could be elected president, but as the calculus changes, the groups that are more agile in embracing a post-Christian future will ultimately benefit.