The War at the Values Voters Summit

The results of the meaningless Values Voters Straw poll are in. In sum: the perceived frontrunners, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, are not frontrunners here (polling at four and eight percent, respectively) and (no surprise) Ron Paul brought a lot of supporters to give him a victory at 37%.

The big story coming out of the conference is not the straw poll results. Paul is renowned for his fervent supporters showing up for straw polls; Herman Cain, who came in second, had given a fiery speech yesterday that repeatedly brought the crowd to its feet. (One of his biggest applause lines came when he noted that although he grew up in the 1950s South, he’s never been angry about the treatment of blacks in America.) The straw poll, though, doesn’t have much signficance in the long term: in 2007, Mitt Romney barely beat out Mike Huckabee in the straw poll here, and neither of them went on to win the nomination.

The big story is the overt anti-Mormonism directed squarely at Romney. Of course there was a lot of other anti-other stuff, other religions (Islam), and people (gays), and movements (liberals and Occupy Wall Street), but the anti-Mormon rhetoric signaled an internal war.

That internal war can be attributed to two people: the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, and Rick Perry, whose surrogate the Rev. Robert Jeffress openly called Mormonism a cult, more than once, to scrums of reporters here. Fischer’s employer, the American Family Association, was a major organizer of Perry’s prayer rally, The Response, and bankrolled it.

In 2007, questions about Romney’s Mormonism were barely beneath the surface here, but none of the candidates so overtly condemned it, and no speaker was so openly hostile about it. Back then, Fischer had not yet begun working as an AFA radio host. During the 2008 primary campaign, Huckabee, who is, like Jeffress, a Southern Baptist Convention preacher, apologized for musing to a New York Times reporter, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

At the 2007 Values Voters Summit, a group called Evangelicals for Mitt was much more visible. There are still evangelicals for Mitt — he was introduced by the American Center for Law and Justice’s Jay Sekulow, a long-time supporter — but it’s clear that support for him from conservative Christian activists attending here, whether a result of anti-Mormon bias or the perception that he is insufficiently conservative, has taken a dive. At the 2007 meeting:

Romney’s supporters are more subdued and even embarrassed by some of the movement’s more outlandish antics. Charles Mitchell, who blogs at evangelicalsformitt.com but is not formally affiliated with the Romney campaign, said, “We don’t just want you to get up there and pound your foot and say, ‘I’m pro-life!’ ‘Let’s go after gay marriage!’” He also said that evangelicals like him are frustrated by publicity stunts like Judge Roy Moore’s defiance of a court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from his courthouse. “Where did that get us?” Mitchell demanded. “It got him on TV, and it made us look like fools.” Evangelical supporters of Romney, Mitchell suggested, are mortified by that sort of polarizing showmanship, which serves only to rally the shock troops in the Christian right’s activist army.

How much has regressed. This weekend, with Fischer and Jeffress’ remarks, the anti-Mormonism of evangelicals took center stage. Bill Bennett tried to rebuke it; even Glenn Beck, who spoke this afternoon, made veiled reference to it by going on a bender about religious freedom, noting that he is a member of the “Church of Jesus Christ” (notably leaving off the “Latter-Day Saints” part) and attempting, in that inimitably rambling Beck way, to argue that all Christians are “united” in said church.

Fischer, for his part, was unrepentant. He tweeted:”Romney took a crack at me from the podium at VVS. Reminds me of Churchill: ‘Nothing quite as exhilarating as being shot at without result.’”

At a press conference about the straw poll results, I asked the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins about Fischer’s remark that Romney’s comments about him were an “insult” to the Values Voters audience. “I guess that’s Bryan’s opinion,” Perkins said, adding that Romney “had a right” to say what he said, and that “Mitt had a very legitimate and poignant point that we need to be civil in our discussions. We underscore that. We need to have a civil debate, but a debate nonethetless.” Then, attempting to deflect attention away from Fischer’s incivility, he added, “our growing concern that there are those, especially on the left, who want to cut off that debate.” What debate he meant, he didn’t say, but he obviously would rather wage war with his enemies than his friends.

 

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email