By Judy Wiley
DALLAS (Reuters) - An unapologetic Pastor Robert Jeffress, who created a stir for calling Mormonism a "cult" at a political gathering, told hundreds of congregants at his Texas megachurch on Sunday that he welcomed the opportunity he's had to warn people about a "false religion."
"I have not changed my position," Jeffress told the crowd of about 2,000 attending the early service at First Baptist Church of Dallas.
The TV evangelist and prominent religious leader spent the last two days defending statements he made to reporters at a conservative gathering on Friday in Washington DC, in which he called Mormonism a "cult" just minutes after introducing and endorsing Texas Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry.
The pastor, who is known for making blunt statements about religion and politics, aimed his comments at Republican candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon who had avoided discussions of religion in the race until Jeffress made his comments to reporters at the Values Voters Summit in Washington.
Perry, an evangelical Christian, rejected the comments by Jeffress and said he did not believe Mormons were a cult. Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah and another Republican presidential candidate, is also a Mormon.
On Sunday, politicians bashed his comments on morning talk shows, and no one in the Republican race would back him up
"I am not running for theologian in chief," Herman Cain, a former pizza executive who is rising fast in polls, said on CNN's "State of the Union" show. "I am not going to get into an analysis of Mormonism vs. Christianity. I'm not getting into that," said Cain, who said he was a lifelong Christian.
But Jeffress remained defiant in his convictions on Sunday during and after his remarks at the pulpit.
"Absolutely, Mormonism is a false religion," he told Reuters after the service. "It was invented 1800 years after the establishment of Christianity."
Jeffress, who earned degrees at Baylor University in Waco and the Dallas Theological Seminary, said he has known Perry personally for several years, but that they are not close.
Local media reports have said he took part in at least one meeting of religious and political leaders, including Perry, during the summer when the Texas governor was still thinking about a presidential run. But there is no evidence that he is a close spiritual advisor to the governor.
"We are not hunting buddies," he said. "I am not the Jeremiah Wright of the right."
President Barack Obama cut ties with Wright, his former pastor, after the church leader made what were attacked as anti-American remarks during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Jeffress told his congregation that he decided as a private citizen to endorse Perry to "push back against the evil that is engulfing our country," earning a standing ovation from the crowd at the downtown church.
In spite of Jeffress' attempts to distance himself from Perry, pointing out that the remarks were not made during his introduction or in his endorsement, they have brought more negative attention to Perry's struggling campaign.
Jeffress, whose church boasts 10,000 members in a congregation that at one point included the Rev. Billy Graham, is an outspoken preacher who says he's made more than 600 appearances nationally, and who hosts both a TV show and a daily radio program in addition to writing 17 books.
In the past, effress has said that Islam is a false religion and that Oprah Winfrey is doing the work of Satan.
"I'm not some radical fringe person," he said on Sunday, adding that the Southern Baptist Convention has long held the position that Mormonism is not Christianity.
"He's getting what he thinks from the Bible, and that's where we need to go," said Kathy Waite, a congregation member who on Sunday said she has attended the church since 1944.
(Edited by Karen Brooks and Peter Bohan)