Methodist Rick Perry had to walk a tightrope at the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas.
The Texas governor wanted to neither disown his supporter, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, nor endorse Jeffress' contention that Mormonism is a cult.
"Our Founding Fathers truly understood and had an understanding of freedom of religion," Perry said. "We also are a country that is free to express our opinions. That individual expressed an opinion. I didn't agree with it, Mitt, and I said so." He concluded by saying that Americans understand faith, but were losing faith in Barack Obama.
Perry didn't just want to avoid offending Jeffress, a friend who had endorsed him over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He realized that that Jeffress, a Southern Baptist pastor in Dallas, had expressed an opinion widely shared by evangelicals and other conservative Christians. Yet Perry also knew that a decent slice of Nevada Republican caucus-goers were likely to be Mormon.
While the word "cult" obviously has other connotations to most people (think David Koresh or Jim Jones), Mormons do differ theologically from small-o orthodox Christians in significant ways despite worshiping Jesus Christ.
Mormonism rejects the Trinity and monotheism while accepting scripture beyond the Bible. Evangelicals and Mormons also frequently compete for converts.
But Mormons are allied with conservative Christians of all stripes in the culture wars. Both groups are resolutely pro-life and pro-family. They have worked together in the fight against same-sex marriage, with the Mormon Church lending crucial support to Proposition 8 in California. Mormons vote overwhelmingly Republican and predominantly Mormon Utah is the reddest state in the country.
Since the early days of the "religious right," Christian conservatives have stood accused of wanting to legislate not just morality but theology.
Many critics have claimed that there is no difference between the Christian conservatism popular in the Republican Party and such theocratic visions as reconstructionism, dominionism, and, blogger Andrew Sullivan's invention, "Christianism."
Christian rightists have usually had two replies.
One is that they are involved in politics to defend themselves from militant secularists who want to restrict their religious freedom and keep the public square stark naked. Secondly, they say they are acting according to their values on legitimate issues of public concern and social justice, just like the Christians involved the in civil rights movement.
In truth, Ralph Reed Republicans are closer to Rush Limbaugh than Christian reconstructionism. Infinitely more American evangelicals have read Max Lucado than have even heard of RJ Rushdoony. Dominionism is more often a smear than a serious description of anyone's political or religious convictions.
But Jeffress' anti-Mormon campaign undermines both explanations conservative Christians offer for their political involvement.
When it comes to working to protect the unborn or uphold the traditional family, evangelicals and conservative Catholics have no greater friends than Mormons. Mormons have also played an important role in helping to keep the public square from being a faith-free zone. And in the aftermath of Proposition 8, it became clear that evangelicals and Mormons have some common foes as well.
By raising the finer points of Mormon theology, conservative Christians also risk painting a bullseye on the supernatural aspects of their own faiths. Many of those who scoff at a potential president wearing temple garments find belief in the virgin birth or the rapture just as disqualifying.
Theological truth is important.
It is not entirely clear, however, that conservative Christians are well served by making it a political litmus test. While stating that "Mormonism is not Christianity," Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler recently argued that "there are non-Christians or non-evangelicals who share far more of our worldview and policy concerns than some others who identify as Christians."
"The Reformer Martin Luther is often quoted as saying that he would rather be ruled by a competent Turk (Muslim) than an incompetent Christian," Mohler wrote. "We cannot prove that Luther actually made the statement, but it well summarizes an important Christian wisdom."
Mitt Romney isn't running for pastor of a Southern Baptist church. He is running for president of the United States.
Conservative Christians who disqualify candidates simply because they, like many of their fellow social conservatives, are Mormons are not just at odds with the constitutional principle that there should be no religious test for public office. They are also making those who claim the Christian right stands for religious freedom rather than theological purity appear guilty of bearing false witness.