In 2007, Mike Huckabee sent a not-so-subtle signal to evangelical voters about Mitt Romney’s suitability to be president when he made a disparaging remark about Mormonism and then ran ads touting his own Christianity during the Republican primaries. Four years later, the same prejudice raised its head when Pastor Robert Jeffress, a Rick Perry supporter who introduced him at the Values Voter Summit on Friday, declared that Romney’s faith was a “cult” and stated it was acceptable for voters to prefer or reject a candidate based on his faith.
While the Perry campaign has sought to disassociate itself from these remarks, the question today is whether the Texas governor’s faltering presidential campaign will seek to take advantage of Jeffress’ opening up of the issue of Romney’s religion. Perry’s choice will tell us a lot about who he is as a man.
Though Romney’s faith was often mentioned in the early going of the 2008 Republican contest, Mormonism had faded from the national conversation this time around. But Jeffress ensured we would not be spared another appalling discussion about whether Americans would vote for a Mormon. As I wrote back in June, a recent Gallup poll showed prejudice against Mormons was worse than that directed at Jews or Catholics, with 22 percent of Americans (and 18 percent of Republicans) saying they would not vote for one for president. So clearly, there is an audience for the bias Jeffress brought out into the open.
After Perry’s recent meltdown in the polls and the failure of other contenders who might have garnered more conservative and centrist support to get into the race, Romney must be considered the clear frontrunner today for the Republican nomination. But he still faces resistance from conservative Christians who distrust his stands on social issues. Perry’s dwindling chances depend on the opinions of such voters, many of whom are evangelicals.
The temptation for the Perry campaign to take advantage of Jeffress’ opening up of this Pandora’s Box of prejudice will be great. All they have to do is to continue to publicly deny they agree with the pastor while at the same time produce campaign material and speeches hyping their candidate’s Christianity, in the same way Huckabee did, in order to remind evangelicals they have a reason not to vote for Romney.
But Perry has another, better choice. He can use the controversy as a platform to show what kind of president he would be if he got the opportunity.
Rather than merely deny he agrees with Jeffress about whether Mormonism is a cult, Perry can unequivocally denounce religious prejudice of any kind and say he doesn’t want votes based on bias. Perhaps that would lose Perry some support, but it might also be a chance for him to show there is real substance to his own very public expression of faith than we have already seen on the campaign trail. Doing so would allow him to seize the moment and illustrate that the bumbling speaker who has shown up at the last few GOP debates is not the real Rick Perry.
The next GOP debate this week in New Hampshire is rightly seen as a make-or-break moment for Perry, as he must improve his performance in order to save the sinking ship that is his candidacy. But by confronting this matter head on and metaphorically putting an arm around his rival to defend Romney on this issue, he can show he has character worthy of the presidency.