In Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate, Rick Perry was asked whether he would repudiate the anti-Mormon comments of Robert Jeffress, the Baptist pastor who introduced Perry at the Oct. 7 Values Voter Summit. “I have said I didn't agree with that individual's statement,” said Perry. But Mitt Romney pressed the point:
With regards to the disparaging comments about my faith, I've heard worse, so I'm not going to lose sleep over that. What I actually found was most troubling in what the reverend said in the introduction was [that] he said in choosing our nominee we should inspect his religion, and [that] someone who is a good, moral person is not someone who we should select; instead, we should choose someone who subscribes to our religious belief. … And it was that principle, Governor, that I wanted you to [answer], “No, that's wrong, Reverend Jeffress.” Instead of saying, as you did, "Boy, that introduction knocked the ball out of the park," I'd have said, "Reverend Jeffress, you got that wrong. We should select people not based upon their faith.
Romney is right. The problem with Jeffress isn’t what he said about Mormonism. It’s what he said about religion as a voting issue. That statement was made onstage at the Values Voter Summit right before Perry spoke. And Perry has never clearly addressed it.
Let’s go back and reconstruct what happened on Oct. 7. That morning, Jeffress, the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, issued a press release endorsing Perry and implicitly criticizing Romney. The statement asked: “Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or one who is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ?”
Shortly before going onstage to introduce Perry, Jeffress spoke with Michelle Goldberg of the Daily Beast. In remarks that weren’t published till later that night, Jeffress said it was “critical for a pastor to tell other Christians why it is imperative to vote for a Christian rather than a non-Christian.” He explained that “part of my hesitancy in supporting Governor Romney is I do not want to give credibility to a cult like Mormonism, which I believe having a Mormon president would do.”
In his introduction of Perry, Jeffress repeated the question he had posed in his press release: “Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ? Rick Perry is a proven leader. He is a true conservative. And he is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ.”
Ten seconds after Jeffress spoke those words, Perry was onstage embracing him. You can watch the sequence with a brief visual interruption on Jeffress’ YouTube page. "Pastor Jeffress, I want to say ‘thank you’ for a rousing introduction,” Perry told him. The governor said Jeffress had “knocked it out of the park” and called him “quite a leader.”
As Perry was speaking, Jeffress went out into a hallway and answered reporters’ questions about his remarks. That’s where everyone heard Jeffress call Mormonism a cult and say that Mormons weren’t Christians. His comments were recorded, posted (Slate’s David Weigel has a solid five-minute clip), and widely debated. Journalists, including me, latched onto the “cult” comment. The Perry campaign, asked for a response, initially said only that Perry “doesn’t judge what is in the heart and soul of others.” Later, the campaign said Perry “does not believe Mormonism is a cult,” but it ducked inquires as to whether Perry disavowed Jeffress’ comments more broadly.
In retrospect, I’m sorry that I, along with rest of the press corps, got caught up in debating whether Mormons are Christians or whether Mormonism is a cult. Those questions don’t inherently matter. Jeffress has argued them in theological terms, and by his definitions, he’s correct. In fact, by his definition of “cult”—a human founder and scripture claiming further revelations—Christianity itself is, from a Jewish standpoint, a cult. Which means that anyone running for office is either a non-Christian or a cultist.