Battle over Mormonism in GOP
02:34 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Rick Perry supporter says don't vote for Mitt Romney because he's a Mormon

Robert Jeffress describes Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as 'cult'

Perry distanced himself from comments on Friday

Washington CNN  — 

Controversial remarks by the pastor of a Dallas church stole the spotlight from several Republican White House contenders Friday during the first day of the Values Voter Summit, an annual gathering of evangelicals and other social conservatives.

After introducing Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, told reporters that Republicans shouldn’t vote for White House hopeful Mitt Romney because he’s a Mormon and described the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a “cult.”

Speaking live on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” Jeffress told CNN Political Correspondent Jim Acosta, “I think Mitt Romney’s a good, moral man, but I think those of us who are born-again followers of Christ should always prefer a competent Christian to a competent non-Christian like Mitt Romney. So that’s why I’m enthusiastic about Rick Perry.”

In the same exchange, Jeffress told Acosta that the Southern Baptist Convention “has officially labeled Mormonism as a cult.” In fact, a website maintained by the Southern Baptist Convention lists the Mormon faith under its “New Religions and Cults” section, which also includes Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Scientology.

Contacted by CNN, the Romney campaign had no comment on Jeffress’ remarks. Michael Purdy, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, declined to comment on a statement “made at a political event.”

“But those who want to understand the centrality of Christ to our faith can learn more about us and what we believe by going to,” Purdy said in a statement.

The Perry campaign told CNN via email that it did not ask Jeffress to introduce the Texas governor at Friday’s event. Asked personally about Jeffress’ remarks after a campaign event in Iowa Friday night, Perry told reporters that he did not think Mormonism is a cult, a view Perry spokesman Mark Miner had expressed earlier on Perry’s behalf.

Speaking Friday evening on CNN’s “John King, USA,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and an organizer of the two-day event, said the Perry campaign was informed two weeks ago about event organizers’ plan to have Jeffress introduce Perry and the Perry camp, in Perkins’ words, “signed off on” that plan. Perkins also told CNN Chief National Correspondent John King that event organizers did not know what Jeffress was going to say in introducing Perry nor did the Texas governor’s campaign.

Alson on “John King, USA,” Jeffress told King that Perry did not know in advance what he was going to say and the Dallas pastor noted that he did not “refer to Mormonism as a cult” in his actual remarks introducing Perry at the event. Then, Jeffress affirmed his earlier comments about the tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. “This is not an unusual view, John, that Mormonism is not Christianity,” Jeffress told King, “Historical Christianity has never embraced Mormonism as a part of its faith.”

Jeffress added that, in his estimation, because Romney is Mormon “he doesn’t embrace the historical tenets of evangelical Christianity.”

Then Jeffress told King that, religion aside, he still did not think Romney was the right choice.

“There are plenty more reasons not to vote for Mitt Romney … and I think conservatives have plenty of reasons, leaving Mormonism out of it, not to be energized by Mitt Romney’s candidacy,” the pastor said.

Jeffress’ comments largely overshadowed the remarks of Perry, Herman Cain, Rep. Michele Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Sen. Rick Santorum, all of whom addressed the conservative gathering Friday.

Perry focused his speech less on social conservative values and more on the economy, taking a swipe at President Barack Obama along the way.

“[Americans] aren’t looking for soaring speeches. They’re looking for common sense solutions,” Perry said Friday. “They know our first order of business to get America working again is sending our current president to the private sector.” The Texas governor primarily talked about American ‘exceptionalism,’ arguing the best way to maintain freedom is to protect the country’s economic and national security.

And on the heels of an agreement this week between the White House and Senate Democrats on a 5.6% “millionaire’s tax,” Perry blasted the idea of raising taxes as a way to stimulate the economy.

“When [liberals] utter phrases like ‘fair share’ you just know they’re once again playing fast and furious with the truth,” Perry said. “And the truth is you can’t rev up the engine of an economic growth by heaping higher taxes on job creators.”

Perry did delve into his stance on abortion. Notably, he said he was a consistent anti-abortion advocate unlike other White House hopefuls.

“For some candidates, pro-life is an election-year slogan to follow the prevailing political winds,” Perry said in apparent hit against his opponent, Mitt Romney, whom he didn’t name.

Cain, who recently joined Perry and Romney in the top tier of the GOP race according to several recent national polls, relished his new status.

Cain told the gathering of social conservatives the rest of the Republican field is afraid, “that this long shot may not be a long shot any longer.” The former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza who has never held elected office also dedicated a good portion of speech to foreign policy, a policy area perceived as a weakness on Cain’s part by some Republicans.

Taking aim at Cain’s ‘9-9-9’ tax plan, Santorum introduced what he called his ‘0-0-0’ plan: “Zero corporate income tax on any manufacturer processor in this country… Zero corporate tax on all of that money brought back if invested in plant and equipment in this country… And zero – we will zero out and repeal every single regulation the Obama administration has put in place that is 100 million dollars in business or more,” Santorum said.

Santorum said his plan would boost the middle class and manufacturing, an area of the economy that the former Pennsylvania lawmaker said used to be strong.

“Twenty-one percent of the people working in this country when I was growing up were involved in manufacturing,” Santorum said. “Now it’s 9. We need to get those jobs back.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, long known as one of the GOP’s top ideas men, used his address to deliver a broadside against the notion of judicial supremacy and particular against more liberal judges on the federal bench.

Bachmann, a vocal social conservative, shared how her faith played a role in her fight against abortion rights. She added that she introduced legislation in Congress on Thursday that would require women considering an abortion to hear and see the heartbeat of the fetus before making a decision.

A longtime favorite of the tea party movement, Bachmann also sounded what is becoming a recurring refrain in her campaign for the White House; she told fellow conservatives that they should not settle for a moderate Republican as they make their decision about who to back in 2012.

“Don’t listen to these people, who every four years, tell you we have to select a moderate from our party and we have to settle for the sake of winning,” she said. “I am here to tell you we are going to win. This year, we don’t settle.”

Perkins opened the event by telling social conservatives that electing a Republican in 2012 would not be enough. “This election is too important to elect a Republican,” said Perkins. “We need to elect a conservative that will undo the economic and moral and social destruction this administration has unleashed on America. We don’t need politicians that promise to slow down decline. We need leaders that are bold and courageous that will undo destructive policies.”

Along with Rep. Ron Paul, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is set to address the gathering Saturday. It is not known whether Romney will speak directly to Jeffress’ remarks about Mormonism.

This isn’t the first time the Dallas pastor has hit Romney over his religion. During the 2008 campaign, he made similar comments.