Bob Jones and Mitt Romney: Strange Bedfellows, or Natural Allies?

When Bob Jones III endorsed Mitt Romney’s candidacy, it was at first received as a great coup for Romney. Jones is a well-known evangelical leader in the heart of South Carolina, where Romney faces his toughest early primary, and has yet to convince a large number of Christian conservatives.

But the inevitable backlash quickly followed. In announcing his endorsement of Romney, Jones made the following statement:

“As a Christian, I am completely opposed to the doctrines of Mormonism. But I’m not voting for a preacher. I’m voting for a president. It boils down to who best can represent conservative American beliefs, not religious beliefs.”

Asked why he chose Romney, Jones’ somewhat impolitic answer was “What is the alternative, Hillary’s lack of religion or an erroneous religion?”

Indeed, these are backhanded compliments if ever there was such a thing- “he’ll make a fine president before he goes to Hell.” After the initial wave of positive coverage of this groundbreaking endorsement, the tide turned, and a spate of negative stories appeared, in which Mitt Romney became a weak-willed opportunist for accepting the endorsement of a man that denigrates Romney’s faith. The best example of the new trend is this piece from USA Today:

What bothers me are not the allegations of [Romney’s] shifting positions on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but his acceptance of a political endorsement from someone who trashes his religion.

What else is he willing to compromise to become president?*

Slate’s coverage of the endorsement was similarly obtuse, asking why an endorsement could matter if it expressed open disagreement with Romney’s religion. It’s as if people have forgotten what Romney is running for- despite his constant reminders that he seeks the Presidency, not the Priesthood.

First of all, we should clarify what Jones has said. He said nothing more than that he disagrees with Romney’s religion. Yes, he was more vocal about his disagreement than some would have deemed polite, but he also has a vehement constituency to whom he has to justify this endorsement. Bob Jones is a figurehead for some of the most hard-line fundamentalist Christians in America. He’s obligated to let them know that this doesn’t constitute an acceptance of Mormonism. If he had left out the qualifying statements about Mormonism, there’s a good chance his endorsement would have been dismissed entirely by those choosing to deem him a sellout. It is the very caveats about his feelings regarding Mormonism that make this endorsement so strong. As Politico’s Jonathan Martin put it, “[f]or such a prominent conservative evangelical to get behind a Mormon candidate sends a message to the many born-again Christians who will participate in the primary that they won’t be struck down for supporting somebody whose faith differs from their own.”

So Jones’s language was necessary, but did Romney have to just take it? Well, that depends on what you think Jones really said. Jones called Romney’s faith “erroneous.” That’s about as bad as it got. This is not news, especially to Mormons themselves. Mormons spend their entire lives being told by people of a certain evangelical bent that their religion is wrong. Often they’ll stick up for their religion, but only where the time and place make it appropriate to do so. But it’s no new thing to hear a conservative Christian- yes, even one sympathetic to Mormons at a political or social level– say that Mormonism is wrong. Mitt Romney’s heard this all his life. He has likely argued with many such people, but it might not have been the politest thing to do on so public a stage, with someone who has just endorsed your candidacy for the white house.

What Bob Jones and Mitt Romney have done is strike a tacit deal wherein they agree to disagree about theology, but work together on political and social issues. To those within the media, who view religious people as solely products of their theology, this looks like a bizarre impossibility. But to any religious person, it’s not that hard to see that working for good in the world requires a healthy sense of pragmatism, humility, and tolerance. Alas, tolerance is the one thing religious conservatives are not allowed to have.

Romney responded to the Jones endorsement/swipe: “I’m happy to receive endorsements from individuals. And of course, we have different faiths. I’m not expecting him to endorse my faith. I’m not asking anyone to do that.” And that’s exactly as it should be.

*Also surprising is the author’s conclusion that this means Romney is unwilling to defend his religion. On the contrary, Romney’s campaign has been unwavering in responding to religious based attacks, including, most recently, reprimanding a satirical columnist who joked about Romney’s supposed “17 wives.”