The Mormon issue is back with a vengeance in the Republican race for president. Will Mitt Romney’s faith weigh on him as he tries to cement himself as the frontrunner after activists’ serial flirtations with conservative non-Mitt alternative candidates?
It all started with some inflammatory remarks by a Texas pastor, a supporter of that state’s governor, Rick Perry, at the Value Voter summit of evangelical conservatives in Washington on Friday afternoon. Rev. Robert Jeffress said that he did not believe Romney is a Christian, and told reporters that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) is “a cult.”
“Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian,” Jeffress said. Perry campaign spokesmen said that the governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult, but refused to criticize Jeffress and did not address the question of whether members of the Church are Christians.
Many conservative evangelicals do not believe the Mormon church is a truly Christian domination, and that became an undercurrent that hampered Romney in his unsuccessful 2008 race for the GOP nomination. At one point, the former Massachusetts governor and investment banker delivered a Kennedy-style speech about religion in College Station, Tex., in which he said his duty to the Constitution and the nation would control his actions as president, not the doctrines of the Mormon Church.
On Sunday, two Romney rivals who target religious conservatives in their campaigns pointedly declined to welcome Romney into the Christian fold.
“I’m not running for theologian-in-chief,” former pizza executive Herman Cain said on CNN. “He’s a Mormon. That much I know. I am not going to do an analysis of Mormonism versus Christianity for the sake of getting into that.”
A candidate’s religion “is a valid concern,” Cain said, apparently unfamiliar with the part of the Constitution that prohibits a religious test for office, “but I don’t think necessarily it should be a b ig campaign issue.”
On CBS Face the Nation, Cain again refused to answer the Christian question: “I believe that they believe they are Christians.”
Rep. Michelle Bachmann spoke up for religious pluralism. “We have religious tolerance in this country,” she said. “The candidates can have the faith that they want,” Bachmann said, adding later: “To make this a big issue right now is ridiculous.”
Romney, when he appeared at the Value Voters event, did not address the attacks directly. He is not making all-out efforts in the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primaries, where evangelicals dominate the primary electorate, hoping to win New Hampshire and outperform expectations in those other two early states, while winning the caucuses in Nevada, home to many Mormons.