The pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Jeffress endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry during an Oct. 7 Values Voter Summit introduction, asking those in attendance, "Do we want a candidate who is a good moral person or one who is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ?" The line was seen as a comparison between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, and Perry. After he spoke, Jeffress told reporters that Romney was "part of a cult," and that he would vote for him in a general election but could not in the primary.
During the debate, held in Las Vegas, CNN's Anderson Cooper quoted Jeffress' words and asked the candidates if voters should "pay attention to a candidate's religion."
"It's a legitimate thing to look at as to what the tenets and teachings of that faith are with respect to how you live your life and how you would govern this country," former Sen. Rick Santorum, who noted he is Catholic, said. "With respect to what is the road to salvation, that's a whole different story. That's not applicable to the role of being the president or a senator or any other job."
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich seemed to agree.
"I happen to think that none of us should rush in judgment of others in the way in which they approach God," he said.
Yet Gingrich indicated it is permissible to examine how a person's faith impacts their views. He noted faith played a key role in America's founding and its early years, pointing to the Declaration of Independence and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
"I think all of us would also agree that there's a very central part of your faith in how you approach public life," Gingrich said. "And I, frankly, would be really worried if somebody assured me that nothing in their faith would affect their judgments, because then I'd wonder, 'Where's your judgment -- how can you have judgment if you have no faith?' And how can I trust you with power if you don't pray? Who you pray to, how you pray, how you come close to God is between you and God. But the notion that you're endowed by your Creator sets a certain boundary on what we mean by America."
Perry, who previously had said he disagreed with Jeffress' statement, distanced himself again.
"I said I did not agree with Pastor Jeffress' remarks," Perry said. "I don't agree with them. I can't apologize any more than that."
Romney also addressed the issue, asserting that the Founding Fathers would have disagreed with Jeffress.
"The idea that we should choose people based upon their religion for public office," Romney said, "is what I find to be most troubling, because the founders of this country went to great lengths to make sure -- and even put it in the Constitution -- that we would not choose people who represent us in government based upon their religion, that this would be a nation that recognized and respected other faiths, where there's a plurality of faiths, where there was tolerance for other people and faiths."
Jeffress, in his Washington Post column, said the much-debated Constitutional reference -- which says "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office" -- "is referring to religious litmus tests imposed by government, not by individuals." Jeffress also quoted the first Supreme Court chief justice, John Jay, as saying the nation had a duty to "select and prefer Christians for their rulers."
This is not the first time religion has made the news during a presidential race, either this year or in 2008, Jeffress wrote. David Gregory of NBC's "Meet the Press" asked Rep. Michele Bachmann how her views on "submission to her husband would affect her performance if she were president," Jeffress said. Jeffress also noted that questions surrounded President Obama's former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, during the 2008 race. It was fair, Jeffress said, to ask Bachmann and Obama about their religious views.
"During this firestorm I've reignited over the role of religion in politics, some have quoted Martin Luther as saying he would rather be governed by a competent unbeliever than an incompetent Christian," Jeffress wrote. "Yet evangelicals should remember that the purpose of the primary process is to keep us from having to make such a choice. At this point we have the opportunity to select both a competent leader and a committed Christian."
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.
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