In introducing and endorsing Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., Oct. 7, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas asked attendees, "Do we want a candidate who is a good moral person or one who is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ?" He added, "I believe that in Rick Perry we have a candidate who is a proven leader, a true conservative and a committed follower of Christ."
The statement was seen as a reference to Romney and Mormonism, and afterwards Jeffress made clear who he was discussing when he told reporters that Romney is "part of a cult." That touched off a media storm that saw Jeffress appear on CNN, MSNBC and FoxNews, explaining his comments. The story was the top item on some national newscasts.
Jeffress addressed the controversy during Sunday morning's service, telling church members his comments at the summit and on television came as a private citizen.
"I believe that as Christians and as Americans, that it is important for us to elect Christian leaders who embrace biblical principles," Jeffress told the church. "I believe God does bless a nation that honors Him and His Word, and He rejects a nation that dishonors Him and His Word.
"... Part of a pastor's job is to warn his people and others about false religions. Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Mormonism are all false religions. And I stand by those statements," he said to applause.
Jeffress told CNN's John King that while he won't vote for Romney in the primary, he would vote for him in a general election.
"I think it is much better for those of us who are evangelical Christians to have a non-Christian who embraces biblical values in the White House than to have a professing Christian like Barack Obama who ... embraces unbiblical positions," Jeffress said.
The debate over Romney's religion is not new, having dogged him in 2007 and 2008 when he previously sought the Republican nomination. In June of this year, two employees of World magazine, an evangelical publication, took opposite positions in columns on the issue, with managing editor Timothy Lamer saying he could vote for Romney and associate publisher Warren Cole Smith saying he could not. Baptist Press published both columns, and they were the most-read stories on the BP website that week.
Evangelical leaders say the controversy focuses on two questions: Is Mormonism Christian? And should an evangelical vote for a Mormon? Most major evangelical leaders are in agreement that Mormonism is not Christian.
LifeWay Research released a poll Oct. 10 showing that 75 percent of American Protestant pastors do not consider "Mormons to be Christians."
"It is another religion," Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said on MSNBC. "It does not have an orthodox view of the Trinity and the full and complete deity of Jesus Christ. One sentence from the teaching of Mormonism says it all: 'As man now is, God once was. As God now is, man may become.' They have every right to believe that, and we should protect that right under the First Amendment, and it shouldn't be a disqualification for office.... But it doesn't qualify as orthodox Christianity."
Still, Land said in referencing the White House race, "we're not looking for somebody who is applying for church membership."
"We're looking for somebody who wants to be president of the United States," Land said. "You should examine his policies, you should examine his views, and if you find he is most in agreement with your views, then you should vote for him. And if he is not most in agreement with your views, then you shouldn't vote for him."
Malcolm Yarnell, associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in a Tweet Oct 9, "Mitt Romney is not asking for church membership but for political office. Vote for or against him on the basis of his governance."
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said U.S. evangelicals in 2012 might face a political reality that Christians in other countries have faced for a long time -- a choice without an orthodox Christian who lines up with their beliefs.
"There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying that if you have equally qualified candidates, a preference would go to the one who shares our worldview most comprehensively," Mohler said on his "The Briefing" podcast. "... we may very well face the reality of having to vote for someone who does not share our Christian worldview."
Yet evangelicals should be clear in saying that Mormonism is not "historic biblical Christianity," Mohler said. It is a "rival worldview," he added.
"The more you know about Mormon theology, the more you come to understand its contrast with historic biblical Christianity. The God of Mormonism is not the monotheistic God of the Bible," Mohler said.
Much of the controversy has focused on the word "cult." The North American Mission Board's 4Truth.net apologetics website lists Mormonism under a "cults and sects of North America" heading. The website gives a theological definition to cults, saying, for instance, that cults "deny or redefine any or all essential Christian doctrines" and also "claim to possess a new and inspired written scripture that supplements or supersedes the authority of the Bible." Cults also, the website said, "usually claim to be the only true (or the most true) church in the world."
The word "cult," Mohler said, has a different meaning theologically than it does in the public, secular realm, where it refers to a "secretive group that has a nefarious and subversive aims." That is not the theological meaning, he said.
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.
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