A stunning aspect of this week's controversy over Pastor Robert Jeffress' characterization of Mormonism as a "cult" has been the prompt and vigorous defense of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by the mainstream media.
Take, for example, Slate magazine. Back in 2006, editor Jacob Weisberg wrote that Romney's faith was "rightly" an issue with voters, saying he wouldn't vote for someone crazy enough to believe in the founding stories of Mormonism and that "certain religious views should be deal breakers in and of themselves."
Fast-forward to 2011 and this week's Slate article asking, "Why don't we challenge anti-Mormonism? Because it's the prejudice of our age." Author Will Saletan goes on to equate issues of racial bias and religious bias in the campaign, asserting that GOP candidates should be just as forceful in opposing both. Weisberg himself writes today that there's "no obvious reason why (Mitt Romney) should" lose the nomination, calling him a "sane, intelligent and reasonable man."
Additionally, more than one television news anchor this week has positively badgered Jeffress about his use of the word "cult," defending the LDS Church's own characterization of itself as a Christian religion. And a host of other pundits, including many evangelicals, have joined in the chorus.
Just as Catholics overcame a particularized bias and suspicion with John F. Kennedy's presidential bid, Latter-day Saints seem to be making strides toward overcoming a particular bias with Jon Huntsman's and Mitt Romney's quest for the Republican nomination. This is certainly something to celebrate.
Nonetheless, the controversy around Jeffress' statement actually reveals a subtle but persistent media bias about the role of religion in public life.
Even as the media improves its coverage of Mormonism, there is evidence that many in the media maintain an aggressive posture toward religion in general — in this case, targeted at Jeffress. Regardless of the narrowness of his views, Jeffress is nonetheless a religious leader expressing a genuine and deeply-held religious viewpoint. The media seem less inclined to defend religious speech per se than to condemn what they see as intolerance. Most of their questions for Jeffress indicate deep suspicion of religion and religiously motivated people.
To be clear, we condemn Jeffress' irresponsible use of the word "cult" in this context — a word with such negative associations that no appeal to academic definitions can justify it in sober public discourse. And we would also point out that his characterization of mainstream Christianity by no means represents a consensus among Christians worldwide.
But unfortunate word choices aside, Jeffress has, in interviews throughout the week, articulated a critical idea about the role of religion in the public square. When pressed on CNN about whether he was actually advocating that people factor their religious views into their vote choice, Jeffress told the incredulous questioner, "To religious people, religion matters."
On this point, he's right. Religion does matter — deeply. It shapes world views and informs opinions on vital public policy issues from abortion to the economy. Americans have every right to base their political choices on their religious views, and any suggestion otherwise is an affront to the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom.
So we defend Pastor Jeffress' fundamental right to guide his flock based on his religiously motivated approach to the world. Nonetheless, it is unhealthy for the flourishing of democracy and religious freedom to write off a candidate solely because of his or her religious affiliation.
The historical irony that seems to be lost on Jeffress is that in the earliest days of our republic, it was Baptists who were excluded from mainstream Christianity and access to power. It was the struggle of Baptists to be tolerated, recognized and accepted in Virginia that led James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to lay the foundations for our contemporary doctrines of religious freedom and pluralism.
We appreciate responsible media coverage of all faiths and acknowledge a maturation in how the media have covered the Latter-day Saints during this campaign — but we ask that this courtesy extend to all expressions of heartfelt belief.