WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney has a new message for those who attack his Mormon religion: Back off.
The Republican presidential candidate delivered it to Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday.
Romney challenged his chief rival to reject the endorsement of an evangelical pastor who claimed the former Massachusetts governor isn't a Christian and belongs to a cult because he is Mormon.
"I would call upon Gov. Perry to repudiate the sentiment and the remarks made by that pastor," Romney said at a news conference in Lebanon, N.H., hours before a GOP presidential debate.
Perry, through a spokesman, refused to disavow the pastor, Robert Jeffress, who heads a 10,000-strong Baptist congregation in Dallas.
Romney's challenge on a highly charged, emotional issue raises the specter of religious bigotry and brings into sharper focus the difficulty Romney faces in appealing to evangelical Christians, a bed rock of Republican support.
"Gov. Perry selected an individual to introduce him who then used religion as a basis for which he said he would endorse Gov. Perry and a reason to not support me, and Gov. Perry then said that introduction was just hit out of the park," Romney told supporters gathered at an event announcing an endorsement from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. "I just don't believe that that kind of divisiveness based on religion has a place in this country."
Jeffress endorsed and introduced Perry on Friday ahead of a Washington speech. Jeffress contrasted Perry's religion with Romney's in his introduction, though he didn't mention Romney by name. When Perry took the stage, he said Jeffress "hit it out of the park."
Later, in comments to reporters, Jeffress went much further.
"Rick Perry's a Christian. He's an evangelical Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ," Jeffress said. "Mitt Romney's a good moral person, but he's not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity."
Some evangelical Christians believe Mormons are outside Christianity because they don't believe in the concept of a unified Trinity and because they rely on holy texts in addition to the Bible. For conservative Protestants, the Bible alone is the authoritative word of God and the innovations of Mormon teaching are heresy.
Perry was asked Friday evening if he believes Mormonism is a cult. He responded: "No."
"I don't think the Mormon Church is a cult," Perry told the Des Moines Register. "People who endorse me or people who work for me, I respect their endorsement and their work, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I endorse all of their statements."
A day after Jeffress' comments, Romney took the stage at the same Washington conference, where he called on the gathered religious and social conservatives to unite behind the Republican who can best fix the economy.
"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," Romney said. He also said that a previous speaker, Bill Bennett — who had stood and told Jeffress, "do not give voice to bigotry" — was "hitting it out of the park."
Even that veiled allusion to his religion went much further than Romney was willing to go during his first campaign for the GOP nomination four years ago.
He spent almost a year refusing to acknowledge that his faith was a problem for some evangelical voters in key early states like Iowa and South Carolina. In December 2007, less than a month before voting began, he made a major speech about faith and its role in public life.
This time, Romney is on the offense — and is making abundantly clear that he views attacks on his faith as unacceptable. And while Perry didn't make the remarks himself, accepting an endorsement from a controversial religious leader was enormously problematic for President Barack Obama. Obama was eventually forced to disavow the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his longtime pastor, after Wright made racially charged remarks.
But Perry isn't backing down.
Perry spokesman Mark Miner told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Perry would not disavow Jeffress.
"The governor does not agree with every single issue of people that endorsed him or people that he meets," Miner said. "This political rhetoric from Gov. Romney isn't going to create one new job or help the economy. He's playing a game of deflection and the people of this country know this."
Perry hasn't made extended personal comments on the subject. While he said he doesn't think Mormonism is a cult, he hasn't directly said whether he believes Romney is Christian.
"Mitt Romney says he believes in Christ," Miner said when asked if the Texas governor believes Romney is Christian.
Perry isn't the only 2012 candidate to tread carefully on that question — a reality that underscores how sensitive the subject is with many evangelical Christian voters. Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, a born-again Christian, and businessman Herman Cain, appearing on news shows Sunday, both refused to directly answer questions about Romney's religion.
"He's a Mormon, that much I know," Cain said. "I am not going to do an analysis of Mormonism versus Christianity for the sake of answering that."
And in the debate Tuesday night, the race's other Mormon — former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman — joked that he wouldn't talk about religion, either.
"Since this discussion is all about economics, Gov. Romney, I promise this won't be about religion," Huntsman said when he had the chance to ask a question. "Sorry about that, Rick."