Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses the Values Voter… (Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty…)
Presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain both were given point-blank opportunities this weekend to repudiate the words of a Dallas pastor who called Mormonism a “cult” and said that Mitt Romney is not a Christian — and both took a pass.
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Bachmann, who, like Cain, is actively courting religious conservatives, was asked repeatedly by host Candy Crowley whether Romney is a Christian. Each time, the Minnesota congresswoman demurred.
Calling the issue “inconsequential,” Bachmann went on to say, “I think what the real focus is here again is on religious tolerance. That's really what this is about. And I think -- again to make this a big issue is just ridiculous right now because every day I'm on the street talking to people this is not what people are talking about. I was very open about my faith, very clear about my faith. It's very important. But I don't think that I'll be judged based on my faith as president of the United States.”
Cain, on the same program, replied by saying “I’m not running for theologian in chief.”
Crowley pressed him: “Is Mitt Romney not a Christian?”
“He’s a Mormon,” Cain replied. “I am not going to do an analysis of Mormonism versus Christianity for the sake of answering that. I'm not getting into that. I am a Christian.”
But it’s a question that, now given fresh life by a Texas pastor’s remarks on Friday at a Washington gathering of conservatives that Mormonism is a “cult,” that isn’t likely to disappear.
That pastor, Robert Jeffress, leads a 10,000-member Baptist megachurch in Dallas. He introduced Rick Perry at the Values Voter Summit, but made his remarks about Romney’s faith to reporters afterward.
Jeffress, back at the pulpit Sunday, didn’t shrink from his statements.
Sunday, he told, his congregation that Mormonism is a “false religion” — along with Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. “I stand by those statements,” Jeffress said to applause.
Perry’s campaign quickly distanced itself from Jeffress, with his campaign issuing a terse statement saying that the Texas governor did not agree with the pastor's views on Mormons. But Perry hasn’t addressed the matter since.
Romney most squarely addressed the issue of his faith in a speech in Texas in December 2007, during his first run for president. Then, he was trying to fend off a surge by Mike Huckabee, whose own candidacy quickly was embraced by evangelicals.
“I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers. I'll be true to them and to my beliefs,” Romney said then. “There's one fundamental question about which I'm often asked: What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind.”
Huckabee, in fact, would go on to wrest Iowa from Romney, who had been the leading contender there, largely through the strength of the religious vote.
This time around, Romney has stayed quiet on the subject — and his campaign has not directly addressed Jeffress’ remarks. At the Values Voter Summit on Saturday, Romney spoke out generally against the threat of “poisonous speech” undermining the Republican cause.
To some evangelicals, the differences between Christianity and Mormonism cannot be papered over. Mormons, for example, believe that God and Jesus have bodies of flesh and bone and have taken human form. They teach that God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are independent, and not a unified Trinity as orthodox or traditional Christians believe.
Evangelical writer Warren Cole Smith caused a stir earlier this year when he wrote a widely read essay claiming Romney was unfit for the presidency.
“I believe a candidate who either by intent or effect promotes a false and dangerous religion is unfit to serve,” he wrote. “Mitt Romney has said it is not his intent to promote Mormonism. Yet there can be little doubt that the effect of his candidacy — whether or not this is his intent — will be to promote Mormonism. A Romney presidency would have the effect of actively promoting a false religion in the world. If you have any regard for the Gospel of Christ, you should care. A false religion should not prosper with the support of Christians. The salvation of souls is at stake.”
But Romney enjoys support from other prominent Christians. He was introduced at the Voter Values Summit by Jay Sekulow, a leading advocate of religious causes before the U.S. Supreme Court, who contended that Romney, if elected, would be a better friend to Israel than President Obama and would actively oppose abortion rights, two articles of faith to those in attendance.
Romney finished poorly in the summit’s straw poll, drawing just 4%, showing that he still has some rivers to cross with religious conservatives.
And Tony Perkins, a leading conservative who heads the influential Family Research Council and who helped organize the summit, couldn’t quite outright condemn Jeffress remarks even as he said he was “disappointed” by them.
"I think Mitt had a very legitimate and poignant point that we need to be civil in our discussion," he said.