David Weigel recorded this video
of Robert Jeffress, a right-wing pastor who says Mormonism is a cult, answering questions from reporters after he introduced Rick Perry earlier today
Well, that didn't take long: Rick Perry's campaign is already going after
Mitt Romney's Mormon faith.
Texas evangelical leader Robert Jeffress, the megachurch pastor who introduced Rick Perry at the Values Voter Summit, said this afternoon he does not believe Mitt Romney is a Christian.
Jeffress described Romney's Mormon faith as a "cult," and said evangelicals had only one real option in the 2012 primaries.
"That is a mainstream view, that Mormonism is a cult," Jeffress told reporters here. "Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian."
Asked by POLITICO if he believed Romney is a Christian, Jeffress answered: "No."
Keep in mind that Jeffress wasn't shooting from the hip. He was chosen to introduce Perry at the Value Voters Summit, and in his introductory remarks he implicitly contrasted Perry's Christian faith with Romney's Mormonism. Those introductory remarks were carefully chosen: David Weigel reports that reporters were given copies of prepared remarks from Jeffress before he even took the stage, including this passage:
"Once the smoke clears in several months, conservative Christians will have a choice to make," Jeffress plans to say. "Do we want someone who is a conservative out of convenience, or one who is a conservative out of conviction? Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or one who is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ? I believe that in Rick Perry we have a candidate who is a proven leader, a true conservative and a committed follower of Christ."
Weigel notes Perry's reaction when Jeffress delivered the remarks—far from being embarrassed by Jeffress, Perry was thrilled:
At 2:30, Jeffress took the stage, as promised, and repeated his statement, adding to it. Perry was a "genuine follower of Jesus Christ!"
Perry walked onstage and thanked Jeffress for the endorsement.
"He really knocked it out of the park!"
Perry didn't have to say a single thing, but the message he wanted to get out was clear to everybody: Because of his faith, Mitt Romney can't be trusted by socially conservative Christians.
That sort of religious intolerance surely will not endear Perry to the public-at-large, but within the context of the Republican primary, I'm not so sure. One way of thinking about it is this: In the Republican primary, would you rather be the guy getting attacked for saying you think Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, or would you rather be the guy getting attacked
for being for allegedly being a non-Christian cultist?
It'll take time to see the impact of Perry's attack within the GOP and the public at large. I don't know if this indicates much of anything, but Herman Cain seemed to be trying to straddle the fence on the subject. According to TIME's Michael Crowley, Cain refused to comment on Romney's faith, saying:
Herman Cain arrives, tells reporters: "No comment.... I respect everyone's religious beliefs, and Mormonism has been around a long time."
We'll see how this plays out, but one thing is clear: The GOP nomination has gotten nasty, and it has gotten nasty fast.
1:49 PM PT: The Perry campaign itself is (predictably) issuing a statement saying that Perry doesn't personally believe Mormonism is a cult. Sure, yeah, he doesn't believe Mormonism is a cult but asks a guy to introduce him at a Christian gathering to draw a contrast between his faith and Romney's faith, a guy who then spent a great deal of time making sure every reporter in the room knew he believed Mormonism was a cult. And then after the introduction—in which he drew the contrast—Perry effusively thanks the guy for saying what he said. But no, Perry doesn't believe Mormonism is a cult. He just wants fundamentalist Christians to believe that.
2:24 PM PT: Here's video of the introduction. You may want to skip ahead to the final 30 seconds or so—that's when Perry heaps praise on Jeffress for having "knocked it out of the park" with the introduction. His campaign can spin it however they want but there's no question about the fact that Rick Perry was playing the Mormon card.