Perry backer raises the ‘cult’ issue

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry, still hoping to get his campaign back on track, delivered a well-received speech yesterday to the religious right’s Values Voter Summit. But those remarks were quickly overshadowed by the guy who introduced him.

A Texas pastor introduced Rick Perry at a major conference of Christian conservatives here on Friday as “a genuine follower of Jesus Christ” and then walked outside and attacked Mitt Romney’s religion, calling the Mormon Church a cult and stating that Mr. Romney “is not a Christian.”

The comments by the pastor, Robert Jeffress of Dallas, injected a potentially explosive issue into the presidential campaign: the belief held by many evangelicals that Mormons are not Christians.

For campaign reporters, this has raised a whole host of questions. Is Romney’s religion now a front-burner issue? Did Perry coordinate with Jeffress to push the issue? Does Perry agree with Jeffress? Do Republican voters?

At this point, there’s no evidence to suggest this was a deliberate scheme to raise the issue of Romney’s Mormonism, and the Texas governor’s campaign issued a statement stating that the governor “does not believe Mormonism is a cult.” Asked later whether he believed Mormonism is a cult, Perry said, “No.” Asked whether he repudiated Jeffress’ remarks, he said, “I’ve already answered your question.”

Campaign strategizing aside, what struck me as interesting is the degree to which the political world found this surprising. For those who follow the religious right, the notion that a prominent evangelical pastor would go after Romney’s faith tradition was about as common as the sunrise.

Mr. Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas, an influential congregation within the Southern Baptist Convention, also expressed surprise at the stir his comments created, saying that his view of the Mormon Church is widely held by evangelicals. “This isn’t news,” he said. “This idea that Mormonism is a theological cult is not news either. That has been the historical position of Christianity for a long time.”

In many Christian circles, that’s true. Bigotry towards minority faiths, especially traditions that fall under the Christian umbrella that evangelicals find offensive, is quite routine. Jeffress’ attacks garnered more attention because he was speaking to national political reporters at the time, but conservative Christian leaders talk like this very regularly. Anti-LDS sentiments are practically the norm. The larger question is how widespread these attitudes among Republican voters, and whether it will affect the outcome of the nominating process.

That said, as long as religious right extremism is generating some attention, the media shouldn’t overlook an equally interesting right-wing voice who’ll speak this morning at the same event. Romney will, after all, be sharing a stage with the American Family Associations’ Bryan Fischer, whose over-the-top hatred for Muslims, gays, and Mormons is well documented. Indeed, Romney will be the opening act for Fischer this morning, despite the fact that Fischer has said publicly that Mormons do not have freedom of religion under the First Amendment.

The Perry angle is relevant given Jeffress’ comments, but maybe reporters should press Romney for his thoughts on Fischer?