After introducing Rick Perry as a “genuine follower of Jesus Christ” at the 2011 Values Voter Summit on Friday, a Baptist megachurch pastor, Robert Jeffress of Dallas, called the Mormon Church a cult and said that Mitt Romney is “not a Christian.” Perry’s campaign responded that he does not consider Mormonism a cult but declined to condemn the attacks on Mormonism and said that the organizers of the VVS were responsible for the choice of Jeffress. But Family Research Council president, Tony Perkins, said that Perry had approved the choice of Jeffress to introduce him.
Denying that his remarks were coordinated with the Perry campaign, Jeffress himself has gone on to say that, if Romney were a presidential candidate, he would vote for him, though he felt that, in those circumstances, many evangelical voters would stay home and not case their vote for the GOP. The minister’s statement brings Romney’s religion — which, along with his changing stance over the years on social issues including abortion and gay rights, he has long tried to push to the side — into the limelight.
On the schedule at VVS after Romney was Bryan Fischer, a Baptist pastor and official at the Mississippi-based American Family Association who has said that Mormons don’t have the same Constitutional rights as those of other faiths, blamed homosexuals for the Holocaust and called for a ban on Muslims in the military. Romney “took a defensive posture” and, after saying that “our government should respect religious values, not silence them,” Romney continued:
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.
As Evan McMorris-Santoro writes, Romney also “took a roundabout shot at Jeffress — and at Perry for standing with him Friday.”
In his address following Romney at VVS, Fischer stated that a “genuine Christian” must lead the nation.
Jeffress’ statement has revealed the unease many social conservatives feel about Romney’s faith, which they are attacking in the same way they have Obama’s Christianity by asserting that the US is a Christian nation and must therefore be led by someone who is a (“genuine”) Christian. At issue for Romney is how much of a defensive posture he chooses to take in addressing these attacks on his faith, says McMorris-Santoro:
Though somewhat subtle, there was no mistaking that Romney was pushing back on the Mormon attacks hard. There’s a good reason for that: polling shows they could be a problem for Romney in the base if they catch fire, but most Americans are ready for a Mormon president.
Four years ago when he was in the race to be the GOP candidate, Romney discussed his Mormon faith in a major address. Romney declined to comment about Jeffress’ actual remarks, saying that he had explained his views about his faith in that 2007 speech. His response to critics of his religion suggest that he is “happy to be viewed as a candidate who stands up to extreme elements of his own party.”
Besides Perry, two other contenders for the GOP presidential nomination, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain, have declined to condemn Jeffress’ statement that Mormonism is a cult. Newt Gingrich has declined to comment at all.
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