Rick Perry just gave a well received speech Here at the annual Values Voters summit in Washington, D.C.–though not flawless, the Texas governor is a lot sharper when he’s in control, not under fire in a debate setting. But the Texas pastor who introduced Perry has unexpectedly opened the door to a sensitive issue barely discussed in this primary so far: Mitt Romney’s faith.
The Rev. Robert Jeffress, who preaches at a Dallas megachurch, introduced Perry before the hotel ballroom crowd of thousands with what seemed like an implied reference to Romney’s Mormonism. “Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person,” Jeffress asked, “or one who is a born-again follower of the lord Jesus Christ?” The crowd’s cheers seemed to suggest the latter.
The implication became explicit shortly after Perry’s speech, when Jeffress spoke to a group of reporters outside the ballroom. When one asked whether he had in fact been referring to Romney and Mormonism, Jeffers said he had. “Mormonism is a cult,” he said cheerfully, before rephrasing his onstage statement in a more explicit way: The choice, he said, is between a born again Christian and “a good moral person who is part of a cult.”
Jeffress said that he hadn’t discussed his opinion about Mormonism with Rick Perry, and didn’t purport to represent the governor’s views. (He did say that Perry had “welcomed” his endorsement.) He added that his view shouldn’t be surprising, given that the Southern Baptist Convention has “officially labeled Mormonism as a cult.” What’s more, a little Googling shows that this is by no means the first time Jeffress has expressed this view or talked about how it applies to Mitt Romney. Which suggests that Perry may have–or should have–known what to expect from his opening act this afternoon.
Evangelical views about Mormonism have always lurked in the background as a potential pothole for Romney, but it remains unclear how many voters otherwise inclined to support him might be turned off. Jeffress’s comments today may renew that thorny conversation.
UPDATE: A Perry campaign spokesman responded to a request for a comment by merely saying, “The governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult.” An earlier statement, sent to Jon Karl of ABC News, declined to rebuff Jeffress: “The governor doesn’t judge what is in the heart and soul of others.”