The Southern Baptist Convention’s public-policy head estimated Thursday that just a small minority of Southern Baptists believe humans evolved from lower species.

Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, also volunteered to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews he does not consider the Catholic Church to be a cult.

Asked on Matthews’ “Hardball” program if he would support a hypothetical independent presidential ticket composed of Republican Sen. John McCain, a mainline Protestant who opposes abortion on demand, and Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Jew, a smiling Land replied, “I have voted against Southern Baptists the last five times I’ve had an opportunity to vote for a Southern Baptist for president.”

“I voted against Carter twice,” Land explained. “I voted against Clinton twice, and I voted against Gore.”

Land told Matthews he wasn’t surprised watching last week’s televised presidential debate when three Republican candidates said they did not believe in evolution.

“The first reaction I had when I heard the question–I watched the debate–and I thought well, you know, what do you mean by evolution?” Land said. “Do you mean the Darwinian theory of evolutionary origins? That’s one question. Are you talking about evolution within species? Are you talking about inter-species evolution?”

“Well, I think most people mean that mankind evolved from lower species,” Matthews interjected.

“Yeah, well I don’t believe that,” Land said.

Asked how many evangelicals would believe that God used evolution as the process to create humans, Land replied: “Oh, it would be a small minority among Southern Baptists, and a slightly larger minority among evangelicals. Sixty percent of Americans across the board say they believe in some form of creationism.”

Land said the belief that mankind was created gradually by evolution rather than in seven 24-hour days is “an acceptable belief many Christians have,” but that he disagrees.

“Among evangelicals–not to mention Catholics and others–you would have enormous differences and gradations, but you would have a fundamental difference with the idea of the theory of Darwinian evolutionary origins,” Land said. “It takes a lot more faith to believe in the Darwinian theory of evolutionary origins than it does in a designer.”

“By the way,” Land volunteered, “I don’t think Catholicism is a cult,” an apparent reference to another Thursday interview by Matthews with former Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton, accused by current GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney of bashing Mormons.

Sharpton came under fire for saying in a debate with an atheist that “those of us who believe in God” would defeat Romney’s bid for the White House. Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Sharpton’s remark could be construed as “a bigoted comment.”

A Pentecostal minister, Sharpton said some Christians do not view Mormons as a Christian church but instead a cult, but he is not one of them.

“The problem he [Romney] is now going to have, is he going to say that everyone in the religious world that doesn’t recognize the Mormon Church are bigots?” Sharpton said.

“Well, I think he would say that,” Matthews said.

“Then you would have to start saying that when you guys question Giuliani about his Catholicism or Senator Obama about his past, now you all are bigots,” Sharpton said.

“Let me tell you something, Reverend,” Matthews said. “We can agree on one socio-metric overlay. I happen to know some people within our Christian faith think of the Catholic Church as a cult….”

“But that doesn’t make them bigots,” Sharpton protested. “We do have the right to have theological disagreement. I just happen not to have this one about Mormons.”

“Well if somebody calls me a cultist, I may have a problem with their theology, but you’re right,” Matthews said. “We all believe what we believe, and it’s tricky.”

Given Land’s assurance he doesn’t think the Catholic Church is a cult, Matthews, who was raised as a Catholic, said: “We’ve got to get away from that kind of debate. You know, there’s some things we can’t debate on this show, and whether some religion is in or out is not our call.”

Land agreed. “I think it’s preposterous for Americans to say that some religions are kosher and some religions aren’t,” he said. “Americans have complete freedom of choice in religion.”

Matthews voiced the final word. “To believe in any religion is a leap of faith,” he said. “It comes with grace and it comes with God’s help, and the idea that you can say one is better than the other is a hard case.”

Land’s denomination officially categorizes the Mormon Church as a non-Christian cult, but he is on record as saying he doesn’t believe Romney’s church affiliation should be “a deal breaker” for people of faith.

Baptist Press recently reported on Southern Baptists in Utah aiding in distribution of 350,000 DVDs disputing Mormonism to coincide with airing of a two-part series on “The Mormons” on PBS.

The SBC North American Mission Board says Baptists share many common beliefs with Roman Catholics, but differ on essentials like the doctrine of salvation. NAMB offers a pamphlet for “Sharing the Good News With Our Roman Catholic Friends.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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