Romney Stands Up to Bryan Fischer at Values Voters Summit

Earlier this week, I predicted that Romney would not confront notoriously bigoted AFA radio host Bryan Fischer this morning when the two shared a stage at the Values Voter Summit.

I was wrong. And I’m glad.

Rather than taking a characteristically pragmatic and passive response to Fischer’s anti-Mormon (and anti-everyone-else) rants, Romney said:

Almost all Americans live for a purpose greater than ourselves.  Our heritage of religious faith and tolerance has importantly shaped who we have become as a people.  We must continue to welcome faith into the public square and allow it to flourish. Our government should respect religious values, not silence them. We will always pledge our allegiance to a nation under God.

Our values ennoble the citizen, and strengthen the nation. We should remember that decency and civility are values too. One of the speakers who will follow me today, has crossed that line. Poisonous language does not advance our cause. It has never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind. The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate.  The task before us is to focus on the conservative beliefs and the values that unite us – let no agenda, narrow our vision or drive us apart.

Posner characterized this as a mild reproach, met with tepid applause from the VVS crowd. But Romney’s words actually strike me as forthright and direct, especially given the venue. The VVS is not especially friendly territory for Mormons. Yet Romney used his opportunity to rebuke not only Fischer’s anti-Mormonism but also his equal-opportunity-ugliness. It showed leadership. That’s to be praised, especially in the context of a GOP that over the last few years has willingly hosted so many varieties of extremist sentiment, from the Birthers and Glenn Beck to the likes of Bryan Fischer.

The so-far-successful candidacy of Mitt Romney means that the GOP must do some internal reckoning with the costs and benefits of its alliance with evangelical conservatives. Will the Republican Party allow a particular strand of American religious antagonism to choose its presidential candidates, even when the evangelical right fails to deliver candidates the rest of the nation finds credible or electable?  

Could Mitt Romney’s modest but principled stand signal a turning point for the acceptability of openly anti-Mormon sentiment within the GOP?

I’ve seen a few other signs this week that suggest it might be so.

First, Pat Robertson publicly praised Romney as an “outstanding Christian.” It wasn’t exactly a candidate endorsement, but at least a recognition that when Romney (and other Mormons) say that we share in common Protestant views of the divinity and significance of Jesus, we aren’t lying.  And what Robertson says matters.

Then, there was an inspired blog post in which Christian author Nish Weiseth reflects on the hurt dished out to Mormon girls at her high school and her own reservations about LDS people. “I’m starting to wonder what I’ve been so afraid of,” Weiseth writes. The post has gone viral among Mormon readers. It certainly touched me. Perhaps it can help bring about greater dialogue between evangelical Christians and Mormons.

No one should underestimate the strength and longevity of anti-Mormon sentiment in the south. (On Monday, I’ll cover some of the history of organized anti-Mormonism with scholar and author Patrick Mason.)

But today at the Values Voter Summit, Mitt Romney demonstrated that Mormons are capable of doing more than lowering our eyes and walking away. If we expect the GOP to confront anti-Mormon sentiment in its own ranks, Mormons need to confront people who regard us as liars and cult members—even if it’s in our own modest way.