Perry backer: Romney in a 'cult,' not a Christian
WASHINGTON (AP) — The pastor who introduced Texas Gov. Rick Perry at a conservative gathering Friday said rival presidential candidate Mitt Romney is not a Christian and is in a cult because he is a Mormon.
Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, made similar remarks about Romney when he ran in the 2008 campaign. Event organizers at the Values Voters Summit selected Jeffress to introduce Perry, but the Perry campaign was consulted about the choice and approved Jeffress to introduce the Texas governor.
Jeffress endorsed Perry at the event and introduced him as "a proven leader, a true conservative, and a committed follower of Christ."
After his remarks, Jeffress told reporters that Perry's religion is different from Romney's.
"Rick Perry's a Christian. He's an evangelical Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ," Jeffress said. "Mitt Romney's a good moral person, but he's not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity."
Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are commonly called Mormons.
Perry and his campaign made clear that he disagrees with Jeffress.
Asked by reporters Friday night in Tiffin, Iowa, whether Mormonism is a cult, Perry replied, "No."
Earlier Friday, spokesman Mark Miner said that "the governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult."
Still, the campaign refused to definitively say whether they were accepting his offered endorsement. "The governor is running a campaign of inclusion and looks forward to receiving the endorsement of many people," Miner said. "People can endorse whoever they like."
Jeffress had made similar comments about Romney before, during the former Massachusetts governor's first presidential run in 2008.
"Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise. Even though he talks about Jesus as his lord and savior, he is not a Christian," Jeffress said in a 2007 sermon. "Mormonism is not Christianity. Mormonism is a cult. And just because somebody talks about Jesus does not make them a believer."
In that sermon, Jeffress said he was frustrated that some religious leaders had backed Romney anyway. "What really distresses me is some of my ministerial friends, and even leaders in our convention, say, 'Well, he talks about Jesus, we talk about Jesus, what's the big deal?' It is a big deal."
The campaign initially said the decision to have Jeffress introduce Perry had been made strictly by organizers, but a Perry spokesman told The Associated Press Friday night that the campaign had agreed to it.
"It was their suggestion; it was their choice of who introduced us. They asked our campaign what we thought, and we said OK," Miner said.
Jeffress is a prominent religious leader in Texas. His First Baptish Church has more than 10,000 members. In 2009, Perry recognized Jeffress by name during his speech at a dinner for the Light of Life dinner and gala in Dallas.
AP reporter Charles Babington in Tiffin, Iowa, contributed to this report.