On Friday, Pastor Robert Jeffress of the 10,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas took the podium at the Values Voter Summit to introduce and endorse Rick Perry.
Gov. Perry, said Pastor Jeffress, is a leader with "a strong commitment to biblical values" who defunded Planned Parenthood, that "slaughterhouse for the unborn." He contrasted Perry with an unnamed rival.
"Do we want a candidate who is a conservative out of convenience or one who is a conservative out of deep conviction? Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person or one who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?"
Perry thanked Jeffress for this "very powerful introduction" and congratulated him for having "hit it out of the park."
By then, however, the pastor, having rounded the bases, was expatiating to an attentive press corps.
"Mormonism is not Christianity," Pastor Jeffress asserted. Rather, Mormonism is a "cult." The Mormons "embraced another gospel, the Book of Mormon, and that is why they have never been considered by evangelical Christians to be part of the Christian family." In essence, Romney may be a good man, but he is not a Christian.
Saturday, Bill Bennett appeared. "Do not give voice to bigotry," said Bennett. "I would say to Pastor Jeffress: You stepped on and obscured the words of Perry. ... You did Perry no good."
Romney took the podium to speak of America's "heritage of religious faith and tolerance" and denounced those who would inject "poisonous language" into the political debate.
"Speaking of hitting it out of the park," Romney began, "how about that Bill Bennett?"
The Perry campaign separated itself from the pastor's comment about a cult. Yet Jeffress had expressed that view four years ago when Romney was running. In August, he partnered with Perry at "The Response." His introducing of the governor had been cleared by the Perry campaign.
Hence, this episode was no accident.
As Bennett's blast was being reported, this writer was in a green room with Pastor Jeffress, who was not backing off an inch.
Evangelicals have the same right to support fellow evangelicals as women did to support Hillary Clinton, said Jeffress. And a candidate's religion is a valid concern, for what a person believes about God and man and morality and immorality will influence not only how he lives his life but the decisions he will make as president.
The view that Mormonism is a "theological cult" is not "bigotry," said Jeffress, but the official position of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination and, after Catholicism, the largest denomination in the United States.
Why is Mormonism a cult?
Because, Jeffress explained, whereas Christ, God himself, is the founder of Christianity, Joseph Smith, a 19th-century American, was the father of Mormonism. And the Book of Mormon is not biblical revelation.
The political problem arises with the word cult. To most of us, it conjures up the Rev. Jim Jones ordering up the Kool-Aid in his Jonestown encampment or Branch Davidians burning to death in Waco.
Mormonism, however, is America's fourth-largest religion and among its fastest-growing ones. In the leadership of the nation it is well-represented. If one judges a religious faith by the precept of Christ himself -- "By their fruits shall ye know them" -- it has produced more than its share of healthy and happy children and families and good and productive citizens.
The Romneys appear to be the very model of an American family.
Nevertheless, politically, this is no minor matter.
Herman Cain, rising star in the GOP firmament, has said Romney cannot be elected, as his Mormonism would kill him in the South. Pressed Sunday on what Pastor Jeffress had said, Cain said, "I am not going to do an analysis of Mormonism versus Christianity."
"Mormonism versus Christianity"?
Romney's faith may be the reason -- though he is far out in front in New Hampshire -- he has been unable to expand his Southern base.
In the candidates poll at the Values Voter Summit, Romney ran sixth with just 4 percent, while Ron Paul got 37 percent, Cain got 23 percent and Perry and Michele Bachmann each got 8 percent.
With the Iowa caucuses three months off and Romney's being the man to beat, Mitt is likely to replace Perry as the "pinata" in the debates.
Social and moral issues -- such as gay rights and abortion, where Romney's views have evolved since he ran against Teddy Kennedy -- seem certain to emerge as surrogates for the religious question.
In 2007, Romney gave an eloquent defense of his faith and the values by which he has lived his life. Today he would prefer to keep focused on his business acumen and how to create jobs in a private sector that employs 85 percent of Americans, where his credentials are matched only by Cain's.
It is a good bet Mitt's rivals are not going to accommodate him.
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