Published October 09, 2011
As Mitt Romney faces new questions about his Mormon faith, the pastor of a Baptist church who called the former Massachusetts governor's religion a "cult" said Sunday that if it came down to it, he'd still choose Romney over the current Christian occupant of the White House, President Obama.
Robert Jeffress, a senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, reignited a fire over Romney's religion -- a hot topic in the 2008 Republican primary race -- when he attended the Values Voter Summit on Friday to introduce his choice for the White House in 2012, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Jeffress mentioned the word "cult" in referring to Romney's religion when he spoke to reporters after introducing Perry on stage. The comment drew a strong rebuke from conservative icon Bill Bennett and disavowal from Perry's campaign.
But after considerable backlash, Jeffress stood by his definition on Sunday, saying the Southern Baptist Convention deems Mormonism a "cult," though he distinguishes between a "sociological" cult and a "theological" one.
Mormons have "never been considered a part of mainstream Christianity," Jeffress told Fox News. "Mormonism was invented 1800 years after Jesus Christ and the founding of Christianity, and it has its own founder, Joseph Smith, its own set of doctrines and its own book, the Book of Mormon. And that, by definition, is a theological cult, that's all I'm saying."
Jeffress added that if it came down to a choice that didn't include Perry, he prefers Romney to Obama in the White House.
"The reason I would probably select Mitt Romney over Barack Obama is, I do think being an evangelical, or Christian, is important, but it's not the only criteria by which we select a leader. I personally would rather have a non-Christian like Mitt Romney who embraces principles than Barack Obama," he said.
Romney responded to Jeffress' Friday appearance by saying religious differences should not divide Republicans or prevent them from picking a nominee who is most qualified to boost the economy.
"We should remember that decency and civility are values, too,” he said. “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.”
Perry said the pastor's introduction of him "hit it out of the ballpark." Shortly afterward, however, his campaign said Perry does not believe Mormonism is a cult.
"The governor doesn't agree with every single issue with everyone he knows or supports his candidacy," Perry campaign spokesman Mark Miner said in an email to Fox News. "He is running for president to get our economy back on track and create jobs. Those are the real issues that matter to people."
Other GOP presidential contestants have risen to Romney's defense.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, a presidential candidate who performed strongly at the Values Voter summit, said he does not believe Mormonism is a cult, and believes Romney is a Christian.
"I'm not an expert on Mormonism. All I know is that every Mormon I know is a good and decent person, has great moral values and, by and large, with the exception of Harry Reid, by and large, pretty consistent in the values that I share and that things I want to see happen to this country. And that's what he should be judged on," Santorum said on "Fox News Sunday," jabbing at the Senate Democratic leader.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said someone's specific religion has no place in the conversation.
"I think that none of us should sit in judgment on somebody's else's religion and I thought it was very unwise and very inappropriate," he said, adding that he thinks Mormons are Christians.
Businessman Herman Cain, who appeared with Gingrich on CBS' "Face the Nation," was a little more circumspect.
"I believe that they believe they're Christians," Cain said of Mormons. He added that the candidates are running to be "theologian-in-chief."
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., told CNN that the issue is about religious tolerance, not someone's faith.
"To make this a big issue is ridiculous right now, because every day I'm on the street talking to people. This is not what people are talking about," she said.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who won the Values Voter straw poll, told Fox News that he disagrees with Jeffress and the comment was "unnecessary."
“But I don't think that's the issue of the day," he said. "I think liberty is the issue of the day. Our Constitution is the issue of the day. And too much government -- that is the issue of the day. It's not the definition of a cult."
Scott McLean, a political scientist at Quinnipiac University and presidential election analyst, told FoxNews.com that he believes the Perry campaign orchestrated Jeffress’ attack on Romney’s faith "to test the waters." He said he expects Perry surrogates to launch more under-the-radar attacks on Romney's faith to make Romney look less attractive.
But Jeffress said he expects religion to be part of the conversation on the campaign trail since it's impossible for an individual to divorce himself from his faith when making value-based decisions.
"I've said that I would vote for Mitt Romney if the choice was Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, but I believe, guys, when we as evangelical Christians have the choice to select a leader to unseat Barack Obama, we ought to give preference to a Christian instead of someone who doesn't embrace historical Christianity," he said.
Adding that he's not the "Jeremiah Wright of the right," a reference to the controversial reverend who led Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago where the Obamas attended services for nearly 20 years, Jeffers said his support for Perry over Romney is for more reasons than religion.
"There are reasons to prefer Rick Perry that go way beyond his Christian faith. He is a consistent, conservative versus a conservative out of convenience like Mitt Romney."