Goldberg: Morality, not theology

Robert Jeffress introduced Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the Values Voter Summit on Friday. He started a great big hullabaloo by asking, "Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or one who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?"

Before we go on, let me just say, I'd probably go with curtain No. 1. Don't get me wrong — I've got no problem with a born-again Christian being my president, my pilot or my chiropodist. But saying someone is a born-again Christian, for me at least, is not inherently synonymous with being a "good, moral person," never mind being transparently preferable to one.

In other words, I might vote for a born-again Christian on the assumption that his professed faith makes it more likely he's a good person. But if the choice is between someone we know is a good person and someone who just might be, why take the chance?

Jeffress was practicing "dog whistle politics" — a term of recent Australian vintage that has caught on here and in Britain and that simply means trying to send a message to a certain constituency that the dog-whistler hopes won't be heard by anyone else. In this case Jeffress wanted evangelical Christians to decode his remarks as an attack on Mitt Romney's Mormonism. And they got it. Alas, so did everyone else.

But apparently Jeffress couldn't take any chances. So after Perry's speech, Jeffress blew the dog whistle hard enough to give himself a hernia, telling reporters that Mormonism is a cult and that "every true, born-again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian."

It's difficult to parse what's the most annoying thing about all this. Is it the bigotry, the intellectual incoherence or just the incredible lameness?

According to Jeffress, Mormonism's cult status merely disqualifies Romney when the rest of the field is evangelical Christians. "The reason I would probably select Mitt Romney over Barack Obama is, I do think being an evangelical, or Christian, is important, but it's not the only criteria by which we select a leader," he told Fox News. "I personally would rather have a non-Christian like Mitt Romney who embraces [my] principles than Barack Obama."

So why is he wasting everyone's time?

Just in case Jeffress still doesn't get it: It's not called the Christian Voter Summit but the Values Voter Summit. And yet Jeffress doesn't claim Romney doesn't share his values, only that he doesn't share the same theology.

Is Mormonism a cult? Yes, no, maybe, who cares. From a Jewish perspective, you could say that Mormonism is simply one of the more recent additions to a very long line of cults. From an atheist perspective, it's cults as far as the eye can see.

But from a moral perspective, contemporary Mormonism is squarely within the Judeo-Christian tradition, promoting decency, self-restraint, family values, etc.

The old Moral Majority had its flaws, but its core mission was admirable: to promote moral unity under the banner of theological pluralism. However you worship, if you shared the same "traditional values" you could work together. Jeffress turns all that on its head.

He also plays into the worst stereotypes about the Republicans as a bigoted and theocratic party for evangelical Christians alone. And that's ironic too. Because anti-Mormon prejudice is not a particularly acute problem on the right.

According to Gallup, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they'd never vote for a Mormon presidential candidate (27% compared with 18%). Only 7% of Baptists and Catholics say Mormonism is a deal breaker, while half of all atheists do and a third of gays. (Oh, and only 5% of blacks would disqualify a Mormon, while 22% of Mormons would. Go figure.)

It's good and right that Perry is distancing himself from Jeffress. Then again, maybe he put Jeffress up to this stunt in the first place so the idea would get out without him taking the heat for it.

Ironically, if Perry did goad the Dallas-based pastor to blow the Mormon dog whistle, or if he picks it up himself, it would only lend credence to Jeffress' insinuation that a choice between Romney and Perry is a choice between a "good, moral person" and "a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ."

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Can kids be good without God? Might they actually be better? A professor says yes
    Can kids be good without God? Might they actually be better? A professor says yes

    Cheer up, secular parents: Despite the benefits often associated with being religious -- comfort in knowing there's an afterlife, easily accessible communities that can quickly come to our aid and more -- you can (and many of you do) raise smart, well-adjusted, moral children who contribute...

  • Religion, the workplace and the Supreme Court
    Religion, the workplace and the Supreme Court

    The federal Civil Rights Act bans discrimination in employment on the basis of religion, but it does more than that: Under the law, a company must accommodate the religious practices of workers unless doing so imposes an undue hardship on the conduct of its business. This week, the Supreme...

  • Can kids be good without God? Watch our video discussion with Patt Morrison and Phil Zuckerman
    Can kids be good without God? Watch our video discussion with Patt Morrison and Phil Zuckerman

    Holidays that began literally as "holy days" have become shopping and vacation opportunities. Chairs at Sunday brunch tables fill up, while pews in Sunday church services get emptier. A fifth of Americans – and one-third of Americans under the age of 30 – mark "none" as their...

  • It's high time for Pope Francis to open the Vatican Bank's files
    It's high time for Pope Francis to open the Vatican Bank's files

    Pope Francis, who has worked hard to carve out a reputation as a reformer, is facing one of his most daunting challenges when it comes to the Catholic Church's finances, particularly the Vatican Bank. Since World War II — when the bank was created as the equivalent of the Federal...

  • Fail at your marriage, lose your job
    Fail at your marriage, lose your job

    Three years ago the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that religious organizations enjoy a “ministerial exception” from laws against employment discrimination. That case involved a teacher fired by a Lutheran school that had classified her as a “commissioned minister."

  • A natural argument for the birth control pill
    A natural argument for the birth control pill

    When Pope Francis put in a word for “responsible parenthood” on his way back from the Philippines the other day, he added an off-the-cuff remark that grabbed headlines: Catholics, he said, do not need to breed “like rabbits.”

  • The influence of science and reason on moral progress
    The influence of science and reason on moral progress

    A century and a half ago, an abolitionist preacher named Theodore Parker noticed something striking about the moral universe: “The arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways,” he said, but added that “from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” Fifty...

  • Sainthood and Serra: His virtues outdistance his sins
    Sainthood and Serra: His virtues outdistance his sins

    The outcries began as soon as Pope Francis announced that, after 80 years of formal consideration, Father Junipero Serra, founder of the California missions, was to be made a saint. The outrage isn't new. It hews back to the accusation that Serra actively participated in “genocide,”...

Comments
Loading