At an influential gathering of conservative Christian activists, a prominent Southern Baptist pastor endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry for president and then attacked the religious beliefs of one of Perry’s main Republican opponents.
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, called Mormonism “a cult” and said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is Mormon, was not a Christian.
Jeffress, who earlier this year joined a behind-closed-doors meeting of conservative Christian activists who met with Perry as they planned political revival, introduced Perry at the annual “Values Voter Summit.”
The event, led by the James Dobson-founded Family Research Council, attracts most Republican presidential candidates and many congressional Republican leaders as well as key Republican figures from around the nation.
Following his introduction of Perry, Jeffress spoke to reporters at the event. In his comments to the press, the controversial Southern Baptist megachurch pastor attacked Romney and Mormonism.
“As evangelical Christians, we understand that Mormonism isn’t Christianity and thus the difference between someone who is good and moral like Mitt Romney and a true follower of Christ [like Perry],” Jeffress said.
“I think the decision for conservative evangelical Christians right now is going to be, do we prefer somebody who is truly a believer in Jesus Christ or somebody who is a good moral person but is a member of a cult? And it’s not politically correct to say but it is true: Mormonism is a cult.”
When a reporter asked Jeffress if he thought Romney was a Christian, Jeffress said he didn’t think Romney was.
Jeffress defended labeling Mormonism a cult by claiming the Southern Baptist Convention had “officially labeled Mormonism a cult.” He argued that since it was “the view of the largest Protestant denomination in the country and the world,” it was “not some right-wing extremist view.”
Although the SBC has not labeled Mormonism a cult in an SBC resolution, a website maintained by the SBC’s North American Mission Board does list Mormonism as a cult.
This is not the first time Jeffress has attacked Mormonism. As questions arose regarding Romney’s faith during the 2008 presidential campaign, Jeffress called Mormonism “a cult” then also.
During his introduction of Perry, Jeffress did not mention Mormonism but subtly made the same religious argument.
“Once the smoke clears in several months, conservative Christians will have a choice to make,” Jeffress said just before brining Perry onto the stage.
“Do we want someone who is a conservative out of convenience, or one who is a conservative out of conviction? Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or one who is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ? I believe that in Rick Perry we have a candidate who is a proven leader, a true conservative and a committed follower of Christ.”
As Perry started his speech, he thanked Jeffress for his introductory comments.
“Pastor Jeffress, I want to thank you for a rousing introduction,” Perry stated. “He knocked it out of the park, as I like to say. And a fellow who on any given Sunday is working with 10,000 Texans in his church. So I just again want to say thank you to quite a leader.”
After Jeffress made his comments about Mormonism, Perry’s campaign quickly distanced the governor from Jeffress – even though the campaign had approved Jeffress as Perry’s introducer.
A campaign spokesperson said Perry “does not believe Mormonism is a cult.”
When Perry was asked if he believed Mormonism was a cult, he said no. But when asked if he denounced the comments and if he thought Romney was a Christian, he responded he had already answered the questions.
Perry avoided taking a strong position on the issue, but others quickly condemned Jeffress’ remarks.
Two Mormon Democratic politicians in Utah released a statement saying they were “appalled and disappointed by Jeffress’ statement that Mormons are not Christian.”
Conservative author and former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett responded to Jeffress by name during his address at the Values Voter Summit. Bennett criticized Jeffress for making bigoted remarks and for taking attention away from the other speakers at the event.
“Do not give voice to bigotry,” Bennett said. “I would say to Pastor Jeffress: You stepped on and obscured the words of Perry and Santorum and Cain and Bachmann and everyone else who has spoken here. You did Rick Perry no good, sir, in what you had to say.”
Romney, who spoke at the event after Bennett, started his speech by praising Bennett for his comments.
“And speaking of hitting it out of the park, how about that Bill Bennett?” Romney said. “Isn’t he something else?”
Romney did not directly respond to Jeffress’ comments, but he did speak out against similar comments by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, a cosponsoring organization of the event.
Fischer, who spoke after Romney, has previously said that First Amendment protections do not extend to non-Christians like Muslims and Mormons.
“Our values ennoble the citizen and they strengthen the nation,” Romney said after arguing that the nation would always be “a nation that is under God.”
“We should remember that decency and civility are values, too. One of the speakers who will follow me today has crossed that line, I think. Poisonous language doesn’t advance our cause. It’s never softened a single heart nor 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.”
After attacking Romney’s faith, Jeffress invoked religious arguments to explain that if Romney won the Republican presidential nomination, he would vote for Romney instead of President Barack Obama.
“I’ll hold my nose and vote for Mitt Romney,” Jeffress said. “I believe a non-Christian who embraces Christian principles is more palatable than a Christian, and I’m accepting that Barack Obama is a Christian by his own statements, I would rather have a non-Christian who embraces Christian principles than a professing Christian who governs by unbiblical principles.”
This is not the first time Jeffress has attacked Obama’s Christian faith. Earlier this year, Jeffress used false information on Fox News to argue that Obama was not a Christian but actually a Muslim.
Jeffress attended a meeting in June that brought together about 80 conservative Christian leaders trying to bring political change to the nation.
In 1979, Robison led a similar secret meeting for determining how to defeat then-President Jimmy Carter.
That effort culminated in an August 1980 rally with Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan that helped Reagan mobilize pastors for his presidential campaign.
Despite Perry’s outreach with conservative Christian leaders, he placed fourth in the presidential straw poll at the Values Voter Summit while Romney came in sixth.
Topping the poll was U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, followed by Herman Cain and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.
Last year’s winner of the straw poll – U.S. Rep. Mike Pence – has since decided not to run for president.
Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee split the straw poll results before the last presidential cycle, before losing the nomination to U.S. Sen. John McCain.
The poll has not been a reliable predictor for the nomination, but it does suggest some problems for Perry.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.