Romney, others push back against 'Mormonism a cult' charge

Is Rick Perry having a Rev. Jeremiah Wright moment? He's having to distance himself from evangelical leader Robert Jeffress, who says that Mormonism – Mitt Romney's religion – is "a cult."

Evan Vucci/AP
Republican presidential hopeful Gov. Rick Perry of Texas speaks to social conservatives at the Values Voter Summit on Friday, Oct. 7, 2011, in Washington.

Rick Perry seems to be having his Rev. Jeremiah Wright moment.

Pastor Wright was President Obama’s minister until he had to be rebuked and rejected by then-candidate Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

For Perry, it’s Dallas megachurch Baptist minister and prominent evangelical leader Robert Jeffress who’s causing the stir.

At the Values Voter Summit in Washington Friday, the Rev. Jeffress – who introduced Perry to the conservative gathering and has endorsed the Texas governor – said Mitt Romney’s Mormon religion was “a cult” and “not Christianity.”

So far, Perry (through a campaign spokesman) has said he doesn’t agree with that provocative characterization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But he has yet to call out Jeffress personally or to reject the controversial minister’s endorsement – a step that certainly would put him at odds with a key segment of the Republican base.

It took a while for him to do so, but when he did Obama made a firm and clear break with Wright, whose sermons critics found to be not only racially inflammatory but hateful of America.

In a major speech on race at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in March, 2008, Obama said, “Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong, but divisive.”

"They weren't simply a religious leader's efforts to speak out against perceived injustice,” Obama continued. “Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America."

Perry’s situation with Jeffress is not the same. Jeffress is not Perry’s pastor, and Perry had no say in who was to introduce him to the Values Voter Summit, which is sponsored by the conservative Family Research Council.

But it’s at least a distraction, as is the flap over a Perry family hunting lodge whose name was an obvious racial slur using the “N” word. So Perry – whose campaign has faltered after an initial meteoric zoom to the top – now is having to deal with charges related to race and religion.

On Saturday, the pushback began against the “Mormonism as a cult” charge.

Addressing the Values Voter Summit, radio host and former Reagan and Bush administration senior official Bill Bennett spoke specifically to what Jeffress had said about Romney, which included the statement that “Mormonism is not Christianity.”

"Do not give voice to bigotry," Bennett said. "You stepped on and obscured the words of Perry and Santorum and Cain and Bachmann and everyone else who has spoken here. You did Rick Perry no good sir, in what you had to say."

So far, Romney has not criticized Jeffress or Perry for Friday’s incident, although he gave a shout-out to Bennett in a way that obviously applied to the Perry-Jeffress flap. Speaking to the gathering of social conservatives Saturday he tried to rise above it all.

“Our values ennoble the citizen, and strengthen the nation. We should remember that decency and civility are values too,” he said. “The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate. The task before us is to focus on the conservative beliefs and the values that unite us – let no agenda narrow our vision or drive us apart.”

But Romney did take the opportunity to note that “one of the speakers who will follow me today, has crossed that line.”

He was speaking of Bryan Fischer, a director at the Mississippi-based American Family Association, who ( reports) has blamed homosexuals for the Holocaust, suggested banning Muslims from serving in the military, and has strongly attacked Mormonism.

Fischer also has claimed that the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion doesn’t apply to Mormons, declaring: “The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the free exercise of the Christian religion.”

Such “poisonous language,” Romney says, “does not advance our cause. It has never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind.”

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