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Mixed Results for GOP Field in Religious Tolerance Test

The firestorm Pastor Robert Jeffress ignited on Friday by attacking Mormonism and asserting that evangelical Christians ought not to vote for Mitt Romney created an interesting test for the Republican presidential field. They had a choice as to whether to repudiate religious prejudice or to dodge the question in a manner that might garner them some advantage with evangelicals who agree with Jeffress. The results of this pass/fail pop quiz on tolerance were mixed: Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich passed. Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry failed.

While there will be those who say it is unfair to judge candidates on an issue irrelevant to the important questions of the economy and foreign policy, sometimes one can learn more about a person by their reaction to such distractions than by their prepared remarks on big issues. It should also be pointed out, this was an easy test to pass. All you had to do was say the right thing and acknowledge attempts to inject religion into political debates are out of line.

That’s what Santorum and Gingrich did. When asked about the controversy, they simply responded with a defense of their rival’s faith and an attack on bias.

Santorum said on Fox News that Mormonism is not a cult, and said he considered Romney a Christian, adding that “every Mormon I know is a good and decent person [and] has great moral values.”

Gingrich told CNN, “None of us should sit in judgment of another person’s religion.”

Michele Bachmann went part of the way toward the right answer but failed to go all the way when she told CNN, “Well you know, this is so inconsequential as far as this campaign is concerned. We have religious tolerance in this country and we understand that people have different views on their faith, and I have a very sincerely held belief on faith, and I think we just leave it at that.” To say we have religious tolerance is fine, but lacking from her statement was any condemnation of an attempt to stir up religious prejudice.

Herman Cain, who is hoping to attract social conservatives and evangelicals away from Rick Perry, seemed to be working hard to parse the question. He told CNN, “ I’m not running for theologian-in-chief. I’m a lifelong Christian, and what that means is one of my guiding principles for the decisions I make is I start with, ‘do the right thing’…. I am not gonna do an analysis of Mormonism versus Christianity for the sake of answering that.” Later on Fox he said, “I believe that they believe that they are Christian,” a statement that could be construed either way.

The point is Cain is right when he says nobody ought to care about the theological opinions of any of these candidates. But it shouldn’t have been that hard to couch any response to such a question with a defense of religious liberty and a condemnation of efforts to stir up hatred. Cain pointedly failed to do that, which can only fuel suspicion he’s hoping those who won’t vote for Romney because of his faith will vote for him instead.

As for Rick Perry, the man whom Robert Jeffress introduced at the Value Voters Summit on Friday and the person the pastor thinks evangelicals should support rather than Romney, there was a special onus on him to speak out on the issue. As I wrote yesterday, this is an opportunity for Perry to show some character, but so far he hasn’t done so. On Friday, when a reporter asked him whether he agreed with Jeffress about the Mormon Church being a cult, he replied,“no.” But when another reporter asked whether he repudiated the remarks, he merely said, “I’ve already answered your question,” a response that must be judged inadequate on both moral and political grounds.