Did Jeffress do Romney a favor?

Right-wing Texas pastor Robert Jeffress caused quite a stir over the weekend, attacking Mitt Romney’s religion in the hopes of boosting Rick Perry. Dave Weigel makes a good argument that Jeffress has inadvertently done Romney a favor.

Mitt Romney should send Texas pastor Robert Jeffress a gift…. If the Great Mormon Debate of 2011 had to happen — and it did — the candidate couldn’t ask for a better instigator than a guy with the gravitas of a jug band soloist and the tact of a Laugh Factory heckler. […]

Before Rick Perry’s big Friday speech to the Values Voter Summit, a Jeffress accomplice scuttled around the press seats, passing out his remarks, in which the pastor from First Baptist Dallas would plead for the nomination of “a genuine follower of Jesus Christ.” After [Perry] spoke (a fine speech, not that anyone remembers it), Jeffress hung around offstage, available to roving mobs of reporters. He called Romney “a member of a cult” and said “the idea that Mormonism is a cult is not some fringe conservative idea.” The pastor hung out for hours, taking cell phone calls, doing live TV hits, repeating the word “cult” a few times every minute.

Jeffress used his moment to create a substance heretofore unknown to nature: sympathy for Mitt Romney.

That’s true. Transparent bigotry towards religious minorities can be problematic in Republican circles — unless those being denigrated are Muslims or atheists — since the GOP still likes to present itself as the “party of faith.” Some fairly high-profile figures were quick to condemn Jeffress’ remarks, and Perry was forced to distance himself from a key ally.

This, Weigel argues, makes the story a net-positive for Romney. Who doesn’t feel bad someone who’s being picked on for his religious beliefs? For that matter, since Romney was probably going to have to talk about this subject again anyway, no one with faith-related questions will want be associated with the bigot who started the fight.

Weigel makes a persuasive case, but I’m a little skeptical. Sure, Jeffress is a bigoted buffoon, but by pushing this issue to center-stage, he’s told Republican voters something they may not have known: Mitt Romney is Mormon. This certainly isn’t news to those of us who follow the race closely, but I suspect there’s a significant chunk of the GOP base that wasn’t aware of this. Now they know. In light of polls showing continued discomfort among some voters with Mormon candidates, Romney probably would have preferred not to have this conversation.

Also, now that the story is in the political world’s bloodstream, I’m not sure what Romney will do if/when voters start asking him about his faith — or how the public will respond to his answers. What will the former governor say if he’s asked whether Jesus came to America? Or about the notion of people getting their own planet? Or about the Garden of Eden being in Missouri?

If someone was going to go after Romney’s religion, the GOP candidate benefits from having such an ugly attacker. But that doesn’t mean the issue won’t cut against Romney in the coming months.