When Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress called the Mormon faith a “cult,” it was a low point in the sordid story of religion and politics. Jeffress, a supporter of Texas Gov. Rick Perry for president, wasn’t just making a theological point to his faithful. Rather, he was suggesting that as a member of a “non-Christian” faith, Mitt Romney lacked the qualifications to be president.
Jewish groups were curiously silent on this issue, and that’s a shame. Four years ago, the Anti-Defamation League jumped to the defense of Romney and Mormonism in response to polls showing high levels of disapproval for Romney’s religion. “In this election,” wrote the ADL’s Abe Foxman, “Romney should be judged by his positions, not by ill-informed or biased misinterpretations of his religious views or myths about his faith.”
A similar statement is called for today, although Romney is not blameless in this regard.
By appearing hat in hand before the Values Voter Summit, he fell into the very trap set by those who insist on mixing religion and politics. As Jeffress himself put it, Evangelical Christians like him are looking for a candidate with “a genuine commitment to Christian values.” In other words, non-Christians need not apply.
Jews have long fought for the First Amendment not because we are godless, but because we realized early on that applying a religious test to public office is essentially un-American — and un-Constitutional. Politicians need to reassert this message. It is one thing for politicians to take pride in their religious traditions and celebrate the values they derive from their faiths. It is also essential for them to explain the impact their religious views would have on their policy-making.
It should be out of bounds, however, for a candidate to suggest that his or her religion is a qualification for higher office — or to play ball with those who do.