Mitt Romney’s Mormonism was on the minds of many Saturday morning.
Except, perhaps, on the mind of Mitt Romney.
At an annual summit of Christian conservatives in Washington, the former Massachusetts governor and frontrunner for the GOP’s presidential nomination sharply criticized President Obama’s handling of the economy, health care and foreign policy.
But absent from Romney’s remarks was any mention of his Mormon religion — a matter that has taken center stage over the past 24 hours after evangelical leader Robert Jeffress on Friday told reporters at the gathering of 3,200 social conservatives that “Mormonism is not Christianity.”
Jeffress had introduced one of Romney’s competitors for the GOP presidential nod, Rick Perry, whose campaign later Friday said that the Texas governor did not share Jeffress’s view that Mormonism is “a cult.”
In his remarks Saturday at the Family Research Council’s annual Values Voter Summit, Romney reprised many of his campaign-trail critiques of Obama.
“He faced a recession, and he made it worse,” Romney told the thousands of conservative Christians gathered in a ballroom of Washington’s Omni Shoreham Hotel. “He announced a ‘recovery summer.’ A year and a half later, we’re still waiting.”
He criticized the national health-care law as “expensive, intrusive and unconstitutional.”
“Obamacare is a wolf in wolf’s clothing,” Romney said, adding that he would grant waivers to all 50 states to exempt them from the law’s provisions.
He took aim at “the job-killing regulations imposed by the Obama administration” and several times took jabs at the White House over the Solyndra controversy.
While Romney devoted the bulk of his remarks to criticism of Obama on the economy, he took a detour from his prepared remarks to remind the crowd that “decency and civility are values, too” — then went on to take aim at Bryan Fischer, the spokesman for the conservative American Family Association known for his inflammatory remarks about gays, Mormons and others.
“One of the speakers to follow me today has crossed that line, I think,” Romney said of Fischer, who spoke after him Saturday morning. “Poisonous language doesn’t advance our cause; it’s never softened a single heart or changed a single mind. The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate. 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.”
Also addressing the Mormonism issue — although without mentioning Romney by name — was conservative commentator Glenn Beck, who spoke later Saturday afternoon.
Beck, who like Romney is Mormon, said about halfway through his 40-minute remarks at the summit that “as people have come onto this stage and been for or against, I guess, members of my faith, I celebrate their right to say those things in America.”
“Let them say those things,” he said. “I am a proud member of the Church of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is my Lord and savior. He redeemed me fully and completely. He is the only reason that I am able to stand here today. I am a proud member of that faith, but more importantly, I am a proud member of the American religion.”
Beck did not mention the word “Mormon” and did not use the full, formal name of the religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As he did at The Citadel on Friday in his first major foreign-policy address of the 2012 cycle, Romney renewed his call for an “American century” and criticized Obama as “apologizing” for America’s greatness.
“Let me make this perfectly clear: As president of the United States, I will devote myself to an American century and I will never, ever apologize for America,” Romney said.
And in a dig at Obama’s community-organizer past, Romney called the president “the conservative movement’s top recruiter.”
“It turns out he really is a good community organizer, although I don’t think this is the community he had in mind,” Romney said to applause.
Romney did make mention of social issues. He reiterated his support for marriage as between “one man and one woman” and pledged to appoint an attorney general who would defend the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law banning recognition of same-sex marriage. Obama in February directed the Justice Department to no longer defend the constitutionality of the law, a move that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has countered by directing an outside counsel to defend the law in court.
Romney also noted his support for overturning Roe v. Wade and declared his backing of the Hyde amendment, which restricts certain federal funds from being used to pay for abortion services. He also pledged to “end federal funding for abortion advocates such as Planned Parenthood.”
But he made few mentions of God and refrained from talking about religion in personal terms, as other speakers before him had done.
During his 2008 presidential run, Romney devoted an entire address at College Station, Tex., to the issue of his religion. Yet public opinion polls show that Romney’s Mormonism remains an issue for some voters: As many as 20 percent of Republicans would not support a Mormon for president, according to a recent Gallup survey.
While Romney did not mention Jeffress’s comments, that did not stop others from doing so.
Conservative commentator Bill Bennett, a regular speaker at the annual summit and the former secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, condemned Jeffress’s remarks in his address Saturday morning.
“I’m thinking of the words of Mr. Jeffress, Pastor Jeffress,” Bennett said, addressing the summit ahead of Romney. “Do not give voice to bigotry. Do not give voice to bigotry. . . . I would say to Pastor Jeffress, you stepped on and obscured the words of Perry, [Rick] Santorum, [Herman] Cain and [Michele] Bachmann and everyone else who has spoken here.”
“You did Rick Perry no good, sir, in what you had to say,” he added, to light applause from the summit’s attendees.
And speaking after Romney, Fischer alluded to the issue of Romney’s religion.
“We need a president who believes in the same creator that the founders believed in,” Fischer told the crowd.
The attendees in the fully-packed ballroom greeted Romney with polite applause and gave him a standing ovation as he left the stage. Even so, the reception was decidedly less than enthusiastic, particularly when compared with the rousing applause given to other candidates such as businessman Cain on Friday.
At only one moment did members of the crowd express any opposition to Romney. When the candidate was on the subject of same-sex marriage, one attendee in the crowd could be heard yelling, “You gave them gay marriage!”
Another attendee shouted back: “No, he didn’t!”
Romney placed sixth in the summit’s annual straw poll, with 4 percent of the 1,983 ballots cast. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) took 37 percent of the votes, Herman Cain placed second with 23 percent, former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) took third with 16 percent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) placed fourth with 8 percent and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was fifth with 8 percent.
Asked Saturday whether he was disappointed by Jeffress’s statement that Mormonism is “a cult,” Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, responded, “Yes.”
He played down the controversy, however, noting that the “cult” comment “was not said on the platform.”
“What [Jeffress] said was said at a meeting with some reporters in the hallway,” Perkins said at a news conference announcing the straw poll results. “Anything that distracts from the message here — but you know what, I think every year we’ve had some form of controversy. You can’t bring this many people together, this many different speakers, this many different organizations and not have something happen.”
Perkins added that he believed that Romney “had a right to say what he said” about Fischer and that the former Massachusetts governor made “a very legitimate and poignant point that we need to be civil in our discussion.”
“When he’s asked, he talks about these issues, I think, in a very forthright way,” Perkins said of Romney’s broader relationship with social conservatives. “I just think he’s going to have to connect more with the values community.”
In interviews after Romney’s speech, several summit attendees said they thought Jeffress’s remarks about Mormonism were out of line.
“I believe that’s very sad that he would think that way,” said Judy Budde, a 72-year-old retired teacher from Kansas City, Mo., who was planning to vote for Cain and Romney in Saturday’s straw poll. “I have a nephew that converted to Mormonism, and they are certainly not a cult. They are a very devout people.”
Darlene Yost, 53, of Delaware County, Ohio, said she believed that Jeffress’s remarks were a “really cheap shot.”
“In fact, I think that hurt Perry more than it helped him,” said Yost, who attended the summit with her husband, Ohio state auditor David Yost.