On March 3, 1863, Captain Philip Trounstine of the Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, in a letter to his commanding officer, resigned his post in the Union Army in protest against Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Order No. 11, which called for the expulsion of all Jews from his military district as part of a campaign against the black market in cotton.
“I cannot help feeling, that as I owe filial affection to my parents, devotion to my religion, and a deep regard for the opinion of my friends, and feeling that I can no longer bear the taunts and malice of those to whom my religious opinions are known, brought on by the effect that that order has instilled into their minds,” wrote Capt. Trounstine, an ancestral cousin to half of the Calbuzz team.
So we are not entirely strangers to the intrusion of religious prejudice in American public life. Which brings us to the Rev. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at First Baptist Church Dallas, who last week re-opened a nasty inter-religious sore by saying that while Mitt Romney, a Mormon, might be an upright, moral guy, he’s no Christian. In fact, he belongs to a cult (but he meant it in the nicest, theological way).
Let’s be clear about one thing. This is not a new position for evangelical Christians. Thirty years ago, when your Calbuzzards covered the Billy Graham Crusade in San Jose, we studied a copy of the Christian Workers Handbook in which Mormonism is defined as a cult – a stand that is wholly embraced by evangelicals still.
Christians have a better choice, Jeffress argued in one TV interview:
Rick Perry is a Christian. He’s an evangelical Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. Mitt Romney is a good moral person but he’s not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity. So it’s a difference between a Christian and a non-Christian.
Of course, Jeffress said he wasn’t telling anyone how to vote in the Republican primaries, but . . .
It’s always preferable to select a Christian who’s competent over a competent non-Christian. But when I was talking about a cult, I was talking about a theological cult, not a sociological cult like David Koresh. And when you look at Mormonism – it was founded 1,800 years after the Christian faith, it has its own leader, Joseph Smith, its own doctrines, its own book, the Book of Mormon, so it fits the definition of a theological cult. But I think your viewers would be interested to know that today USA Today cited a poll that said three out of four Protestant pastors don’t believe Mormons are Christians. This isn’t some bigoted Rev. Wright position, that has been a position — they’re good moral people, they’re just not Christians.
At least he wasn’t calling on his fellow true Christians to round up all the Mormons and expel them from their communities. In fact, Jeffress allowed, if it came down to it:
I would vote for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. I think it’s better to have a non-Christian who embraces some Christian principles like Mitt, than a professing Christian who embraces un-Biblical position like abortion.
Bob Jeffress Meet Jerry Brown: So what was Jeffress up to and what’s he saying – and this was no dog whistle — to all his evangelical brothers and sisters?
It’s simple: Vote for Rick Perry in the GOP primaries because he’s the actual Christian. But if Perry doesn’t make it and that cultist Romney is the Republican nominee, vote for him against the Bible-defiling Obama.
Or, as the leading humorist in America, Andy Borowitz, explained the dilemma Jeffress was addressing: “Potential Race Between Black Guy and Mormon Poses Dilemma for Bigots.”
To further understand the significance of the anti-Mormon leanings of the evangelical Republicans, Calbuzz called on a theologically trained, three-time presidential candidate – California Gov. Jerry Brown.
“Some people say you shouldn’t be elected if you’re not a Christian, but these people forget many of the Founding Fathers were deists,” Brown told us. (Some of them included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine.)
“These (anti-Mormon Christian evangelicals) are extreme elements in the Republican Party and they are not very representative of voters,” Brown said. “It seems to me rather marginal.”
On the other hand, he said, given the stresses of the economy, modernization and the undermining of common understandings, “We could be entering a more turbulent phase in American politics and a religious test would be only one measure of an extreme and unstable environment.”
Nevertheless, he concluded, “I may be understating their influence but I’d be very surprised if it affects Romney’s electoral prospects.”
Survey Says: Brown might be surprised to learn that in a variety of polls about one-fifth to one-third of respondents express anti-Mormon sentiments.
In a Gallup survey 22% said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon, compared to 10% who would not vote for a Hispanic and fewer than 10 percent who would not vote for a Jew, Baptist, Catholic, female or black.
Gallup found that Democrats (27%) were more unlikely to support a Mormon than were Republicans (18%) – suggesting that in a general election, a Mormon’s hard-right views on gays, marriage, abortion and women’s rights might have more to do with resistance to an LDS candidate than religion itself.
A September poll from the Brookings Institution (p.33) titled “What It Means to be American,” found that Americans are less tolerant of Mormons than other religious groups. Sixty-seven percent of those polled reportedly expressed favorable views of Mormons, compared to 84% for Jews and 83% for Catholics.
In a Pew survey, 25% of adults said they’d be less likely to support a presidential candidate if he were Mormon. A Quinnipiac survey found 36% of voters saying they’d be uncomfortable with a Mormon president. In a Lawrence Research survey, 20% said they’d never consider voting for a Mormon. And a Poll Position survey, found 32% saying they would never support a Mormon for president.
What’s Real, Unreal? It’s hard to determine what, exactly, drives anti-Mormon sentiments – whether it’s what people know, what they don’t know or what they think they know.
Are they familiar with Joseph Smith Jr., the treasure digger from Palmyra, New York, who said he was visited by the angel Moroni in 1827 and guided to a box of golden plates which he said contained what is now known as the Book of Mormon, after he transcribed them from “reformed Egyptian”?
Are they thinking about the breakaway Mormons in HBO’s late great “Big Love” with Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplethorn, Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, Bruce Dern, Mary Kay Place and Amanda Seyfried? Maybe they think Mormons are all like Roman Grant, the evil self-proclaimed prophet and leader of the Juniper Creek Compound played by Harry Dean Stanton.
Or are they like one wag we know who argues that the only difference between Mormonism and Scientology is the choir?
But then again, if you want to pounce on logical improbabilities in religions, you’ve got your parting of the Red Sea and the burning bush, the immaculate conception and the resurrection and that passel of virgins waiting for you in Heaven. Pick your myth.
So it’s hard to know what drives antipathy toward Mormons, except for the evangelical complaint, which is quite specific.
But it’s also an argument of convenience, right now, as right-wing Christian Republicans are trying to boost the fortunes of one of their own – Perry – as their best choice to go up against Obama.
So far, Perry appears unable to take advantage of this or any other appeal to pull ahead of Romney among Republicans. Jerry Brown’s political analysis may be correct.
Whether voters who are affiliated with the Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, Assemblies of God and other fundamentalist Christian sects will abandon Romney in a race against Obama remains unclear. It all depends on how strictly they decide to apply their religious test when faced with the prospect of four more years of the black anti-Christ.
P.S. The Lincoln administration rescinded Grant’s anti-Semitic order. In 1866 Capt. Trounstine married Mollie Wisebart, moved to Denver to manage a family clothing store and led the city’s first volunteer fire company.