And when the politically uncomfortable issue of his religion boiled over this weekend in the most pronounced way yet in the 2012 contest, Romney pursued his new strategy of not directly addressing his faith.
At a gathering of Christian conservative voters in Washington on Friday, evangelical megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, chosen to introduce Texas Gov. Rick Perry, attacked Romney by telling reporters the Mormon Church is “a cult” and “Mormonism is not Christianity.” Perry quickly distanced himself from that view, telling reporters in Iowa that he did not agree with the remarks.
a former Massachusetts governor,
addressed the same summit Saturday, he never uttered the word “Mormon.” He spoke of the nation’s “heritage of religious faith and tolerance,” but not of his own faith.
Romney did, however, feel compelled to denounce religious bigotry and take on those who inject what he called “poisonous language” into the political arena.
“The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate,” Romney said. “The task before us is to focus on the conservative beliefs and the values that unite us. Let no agenda narrow our vision or drive us apart. We have important work to accomplish.”
Mark DeMoss, a prominent evangelical strategist and senior adviser to Romney, said Romney is “largely ignoring” the attacks on his religion. He said this is “in part because it’s an old line of attack by now and also in part because I think more people are going to reject that kind of campaigning that was represented by Jeffress.” In a poll, most Republican-leaning voters said they don’t care whether a candidate is Mormon.
Jeffress is a longtime Perry supporter and partnered with Perry for “The Response,” an August prayer event at a Houston football stadium.
Perry’s campaign said the governor does not agree with the Baptist preacher’s comments about Romney’s religion but stopped short of condemning them. Perry spokesman Robert Black told reporters Friday: “The governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult. He is not in the business of judging people. That’s God’s plan.”
Before Romney took the podium at the Values Voter Summit, conservative commentator Bill Bennett upbraided Jeffress by name. “Do not give voice to bigotry,” Bennett said.
Backstage, Romney thanked Bennett for what he said, and Romney began his speech with an acknowledgment: “Speaking of hitting it out of the park, how about that Bill Bennett?”
Bennett was one of the few speakers at the summit to publicly condemn the attacks on Romney’s religion, something Romney’s advisers said was disappointing. Romney himself was aware of Jeffress’s comments, advisers said, and was not particularly bothered by them.