At the Values Voters Summit in Washington, D.C., last weekend, a respected Baptist pastor from Texas, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, introduced Gov. Rick Perry.
"Do we want ... a candidate who is a good moral person or one who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?" Then he upped the ante, responding to the press:
"In my estimation Mormonism is a cult, and it would give credence to a cult to have a Mormon candidate," Jeffress said. "Every true born-again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian."
A kerfuffle ensued, egged on by the media. But it is a kerfuffle that raises important questions about how and why people of differing faiths -- but shared values -- should treat each other in the public square.
Bill Bennett, a Catholic with a radio show that attracts a large evangelical following, took on the challenge at the Values Voter Summit.
The "favorite bigotry of the left, very familiar to us, very familiar to you, is that bigotry against people who publicly love their God and who publicly love their country," Bennett said. "Love your country and your God proudly and publicly. Patriotism and faithfulness are virtues."
But, he said, "do not fall for what the left does regularly. ... I'm thinking of the words of Pastor Jeffress. Do not give voice to bigotry. Do not give voice to bigotry."
The Values Voter crowd burst into applause, and Bennett went on.
"I would say to Pastor Jeffress: You stepped on and obscured the words of Perry and Santorum and Cain and Bachmann and everyone else who has spoken here. You did Rick Perry no good, sir, in what you had to say."
Then came Bennett's parting shot: "If I may say, I hope humorously (I have to announce this for the press), in terms of debate between Mormons and evangelicals, I was there first: the one true holy Catholic and apostolic and universal church, and I forgive you all in the name of the Father," he said, genuflecting, while the evangelical-heavy audience burst into laughter and applause.
Anti-Mormon bigotry is most flagrantly the preserve of left-wing elites: Witness the front cover of the current Harper's Magazine, where an intellectually absurd and morally ugly essay purports to lay everything the author dislikes -- from the tea party to the revived interest in the gold standard -- at the feet of the LDS church.
Judging from the audience response at the Values Voter Summit, a sturdy interfaith coalition of voters who care for life, marriage and religious liberty has already emerged.
But the coalition will be sturdier if we can explain to ourselves why this coalition makes more than just pragmatic sense.
Jeffress has made clear that he considers Mitt Romney a "good and moral" man, and that he would vote for Mitt Romney if he is the GOP nominee. Yet Jeffress stands by his original call, Christians should prefer to vote for Christians.
What's wrong with that?
Well, first to concede a point: I would never describe Jeffress' words as "bigotry."
Bigotry means a mindless, irrational aversion or hatred.
Religion is clearly not like race or gender or national origin, characteristics a person does not control and cannot be defined by.
Religion is a choice, and a choice that matters profoundly; one that reflects and shapes an individual's values and worldview. It is not irrelevant.
Why then is religion, per se, off limits as a civic test for political office?
Of course, the government cannot impose a religious test for office because the Constitution forbids it explicitly. But why did our Founding Fathers -- yes, Christians mostly -- do that?
From what have we derived our profound sense that it is wrong to rule out a Romney because of his faith?
I think the answer is twofold.
The first is that it is a matter not of morals but of etiquette. It is a great American achievement to have created a civic culture that does not, as so many European nations have done, exclude religion and yet encourages true religious freedom. This culture of freedom includes the right to critique each other's faiths -- to draw the line and say "this makes a Jew" or "this is Christian and this is not" or (especially) "this leads to salvation and this does not."
The wrong done is a question of time, place and manner. As a matter of etiquette, we do not say these things in a way that suggests to our fellow citizens their right to participate in public life is somehow lesser or lower than our own. Was it not Wilberforce who taught us that the reformation of manners can be as important as that of morals?
Secondly, behind this etiquette is a Christian value: a belief that the God we serve wants children who choose him freely, not hearts and minds coerced.
America believes in religious liberty not in spite of but because it was founded by largely Protestant Christians.
We have found a way to work together in America without surrendering our conscience. This is too precious an inheritance to throw away in the heat of any one political campaign.
(Maggie Gallagher is the founder of the National Organization for Marriage and has been a syndicated columnist for 15 years.)