(Steve Marcus / Reuters )
More than a week after the issue of Mitt Romney's faith became an open conversation in the Republican race for president, Rick Perry said the pastor who called Mormonism a cult simply "expressed an opinion," one that he did not agree with.
Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress endorsed Perry and introduced the Texas governor at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, calling him "a true conservative" and "a genuine follower of Jesus Christ."
Speaking later with reporters, Jeffress said he agreed with the belief widely held among evangelicals that Mormonism was a cult, and that in a contest between Perry and Romney, "we ought to prefer a born-again follower of Christ."
Speaking before last week's economic-themed debate, Romney called on Perry to repudiate those remarks. It was only tonight that the subject came up when the two stood side by side at the CNN debate.
Perry immediately said that he "didn't agree with that individual's statement."
"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. But the fact is, Americans understand faith. And what they've lost faith in is the current resident of the White House."
Romney downplayed Jeffress' reference to Mormonism as a cult, saying, "I've heard worse, so I'm not going to lose sleep over that." What was more troubling, he said, was the notion that voters ought to choose one candidate over another simply because of his or her faith.
"I don't suggest you distance yourself from your faith any more than I would. But the concept that we select people based on the church or the synagogue they go to, I think, is a very dangerous and enormous departure from the principles of our Constitution," Romney said.