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Mitt Romney finds himself in a tight race against a flagging opponent. One of the opponent's supporters attacks his religion as a sinister, un-American force. Romney's opponent quickly disavows the remark, but the media continue to repeat the accusation to Romney's detriment.
This may sound like the case of Robert Jeffress, the Baptist preacher and Rick Perry supporter who garnered national attention by proclaiming that Mormonism is a cult disqualifying Romney for the presidency. It is actually, however, the story of Mitt Romney's unsuccessful 1994 run against Senator Edward Kennedy, when Kennedy's nephew, a Massachusetts congressman, accused Romney of being a racist because he is a Mormon.
Most of the punditry on Romney and the Mormon Question ?— "Can a Latter-day Saint be president?" — has focused on conservative evangelicals. Will the foot soldiers of the religious right support a candidate whose religion they find abhorrent? There is little doubt that Jeffress speaks for many conservative Christians when he dismisses Mormonism as a dangerous cult.
Despite this fact, however, polls consistently find that Democrats as a group are more opposed to the idea of a Mormon president than Republicans. Given The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' conservative stance of social issues and its involvement in efforts to support traditional marriage, this is hardly surprising. It does, however, raise the interesting question of whether President Barack Obama's supporters will play the Mormon card should Romney become the GOP candidate.
Ironically, in the long run the vitriol of conservative evangelical attacks on his religion probably helps Romney more than it hurts him. Mainstream liberal pundits have almost universally condemned Jeffress's comments as an un-American effort to impose a de facto religious test for public office. Their furor may help to lay the Mormon Question to rest should Romney survive the GOP primaries.
The commentariat's outrage at Jeffress is no doubt sincere, but one suspects that it also stems in large part from fear of — and contempt for — conservative evangelicals. Being attacked by the religious right inevitably gives one a least a partial glow on the political left. The question now is whether the widespread condemnation of Jeffress marks a turning point.
In the recent past, numerous mainstream voices have questioned the ability of a Mormon to serve as president. For example, Damon Linker, currently the commentary editor of Newsweek and the Daily Beast, published a book earlier this year — "The Religious Test" — arguing that a Mormon candidate's religion is fair game. Only Mormons willing to publically foreswear allegiance to their church, Linker argues, can be trusted with high political office.
Less thoughtfully, Christopher Hitchens — an articulate lightweight who makes a good living by writing outrageous things — recently opined in Slate about Romney's "weird and sinister beliefs," arguing that his church is "one of the most egregious groups operating on American soil." Will anti-Mormonism on the left, whether in the cerebral form of Damon Linker or the vitriolic form of Christopher Hitchens, survive the Jeffress debacle?
The conservative Texas preacher seems a perfect example of the religious intolerance that has infected the Republican Party. As fun as outrage at extremists on the other side is, however, many on the left have painted themselves into a rhetorical corner. It will certainly be more difficult to play on public anxiety about Mormonism in the general election, should Romney make it that far, now that doing so has been widely condemned on the left as un-American.
Edward Kennedy insisted to his death that his nephew's attack on Romney's religion was not premeditated. I am doubtful. No political dynasty survives for three generations by making uncalculated political attacks in the midst of a hotly contested election. Rather, in political extremis, the Kennedys gave into the temptation to fire up their base and scare moderates by playing the Mormon card.
The question is whether Obama and his supporters, faced with a similar temptation, will also succumb. Should the consensus against anti-Mormonism in electoral politics hold, however, Robert Jeffress may ironically become the man who finally puts the Mormon Question to rest. It is surely not an honor to which the diminutive Baptist aspires, but it is one, I hope, that he ultimately deserves.
Nathan B. Oman is an associate professor of law at The College of William & Mary in Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter at nate_oman.