The uneasy relationship between Mitt Romney and the evangelical wing of the Republican Party over his Mormon religion has been part of the quiet subtext of the primary contest so far. On Friday, the quiet ended.
At the Values Voter summit in Washington, Robert Jeffress, a prominent evangelical leader, told reporters that Mormonism was a cult and that Romney was not a Christian.
“Mormonism is not Christianity,” Jeffress declared.
Jeffress is a supporter of a Romney rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry , and introduced Perry at the summit to rousing applause.
Jeffress, whose church is a prominent member of the Southern Baptist Convention, began making his point during the introduction: “Do we want a candidate who is a good moral person, or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ? In Rick Perry, we have a candidate who is a committed follower of Christ.”
The pastor revved up a sleepy crowd — as Perry himself said when he took the stage. “He really knocked it out of the park!” Perry said.
Speaking with reporters later, Jeffress made his allusion clear. “Mormonism is not Christianity,” he declared. “It’s not politically correct to say, but Mormonism is a cult.”
Romney’s religion was the subject of much debate in the 2008 presidential campaign and Jeffress was making the same charges back then. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, even gave a high-profile speech on the topic to address the allegations. This time, his faith has gotten far less attention, until now.
Jeffress said he had nothing against Romney as a person, but considered the candidate a “ conservative out of convenience” who was inconsistent on social issues. “I think he’s a fine family person,” Jeffress said. “It is only faith in Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone that qualifies you as a Christian.”
A Perry campaign spokesman released a statement saying that Perry did not agree with Jeffress about Romney’s religion. “The governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult,” wrote Robert Black in an e-mail. “He is not in the business of judging people. That’s God’s job.”
Black was quick to add that it was the conference organizers, not the Perry campaign, who chose Jeffress to introduce Perry.
And Jeffress made clear that he was not speaking for Perry. “I did not talk about my Mormon views” with the governor, he told the press, “and I’m not insinuating that the governor shares those at all — he may not share them at all.”
Jeffress and Perry partnered on an August prayer event in Houston hosted by the governor called “The Response.”
Jeffress said that many evangelicals agreed with him even if they were afraid to voice their opinions. About 20 percent of Republicans and 23 percent of Protestants said in a recent Gallup poll that they would not support a Mormon for president, according to recent polling .
Perry, who has faltered in debates and been trying to win back support, went on to give a passionate, confident speech in which he did make an oblique reference to Romney’s past support for abortion rights. “For some candidates, pro-life is an election-year slogan,” he told the crowd. “For me, it’s about the absolute principle.”
Most of the GOP presidential contenders are speaking at the three-day convention for conservative Christian voters. Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich all spoke Friday. Most emphasized their Christian beliefs and family values — Santorum even brought his wife and children up on stage. Cain got the most standing ovations and loudest applause.
Asked about Jeffress’s remarks, Cain told CNN: “You know, I respect everybody’s, you know, religious beliefs and Mormonism’s been around a long time. I don’t think it’s appropriate to say, but he said it.”
Romney will speak on Saturday morning.