Although the candidates other than Romney were reluctant to address the issue of religious bigotry, some prominent conservatives were frank and outspoken. Gary Bauer, perhaps the most influential Christian conservative, told me late Saturday that Jeffress had made a fundamental error. “For years I have urged Christians to be active engaged citizens. Our country desperately needs more citizens who understand that our liberty comes from God and that only a virtuous people can be free.” He continued: “Picking a candidate for public office is not the same thing however as selecting a pastor or rabbi. Politics is about picking someone who shares your views on public policy. Millions of Americans who do not worship the same way as I do none the less agree with me on the sanctity of life, the definition of marriage, America’s role in the world and fiscal responsibility.” As for Romney in particular, Bauer had these words of counsel for his fellow conservatives: “The attacks on Gov. Romney’s faith this weekend will only bring comfort to the Obama political machine and their radical secular allies who oppose virtually everything evangelicals and Mormons believe.”
Professor Robert George, a conservative legal and cultural scholar who previously moderated a candidate forum in South Carolina, had a similar reaction. He told me, “This late in the season of our experience, we should know that what matters is not a candidate’s religious affiliation, but rather the depth of his or her understanding of the “self-evident truths” at the foundation of our republic, and the strength of his or her commitment to honor those truths in governing. It doesn’t matter whether a candidate is a Protestant or a Catholic, a Mormon or Muslim or Jew.” Instead he said, “What we need to know is whether he or she possesses wisdom, vision, integrity, and courage. We need to ask whether he or she will protect the security of the nation and, from conviction, honor the principles of limited government, the rule of law, republican democracy, private property and the market economy, equality of opportunity, respect for civil liberties and personal responsibility, the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions, and the integrity and autonomy of core nongovernmental institutions on which the health of civil society (and, to a large extent, the care of those in need) vitally depends, beginning with the marriage-based family and communities of religious faith.”
So we have here a contrast between moral leadership (by Bennett, Bauer, and George), on one hand, and timidity, on the other. Not only was Perry AWOL in denouncing Jeffress, but some of his prominent supporters (Govs. Bobby Jindal and Brian Sandoval) ignored requests for comment. (That might not sit well with Sandoval’s numerous Mormon constituents.) Another Perry backer Henry Barbour would only say to me via email, “I don’t think we need a religious litmus test for someone to serve as President.” And Cain’s campaign likewise ducked the issue entirely when I asked for reaction. To put it mildly, in this instance many conservative leaders showed courage while Republican pols demonstrated a shameful lack of moral leadership.