Values Voter Bigotry Fest Erupts In War of Words Over Romney's Faith
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At last weekend's Values Voter Summit, they came, it seems, not to praise Mitt Romney, but to bury him. In what has become an annual festival of rhetorical gay-bashing, feminism-stomping and liberal-loathing, conference sponsors this year managed to add another target to their list: Mormons.
In a year that featured nearly all the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination as conference speakers, the sights seemed firmly set on the former Massachusetts governor, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, home to the Mormon faith, who showed up nonetheless to pitch a crowd composed overwhelmingly of right-wing evangelical Christians.
It began when conference sponsors, FRC Action (the political arm of the Family Research Council) and the American Family Association (ranked as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center) selected Pastor Robert Jeffress to introduce Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is viewed as Romney's chief rival for the nomination.
Jeffress, pastor of a Baptist megachurch in Dallas, was among those who worked with Perry on the governor's controversial July prayer rally, dubbed "The Response." He is also known for his anti-Mormon (and anti-Catholic) views.
Indeed, hours before Jeffress took the Values Voter stage, Right Wing Watch began tweeting links to its research on Jeffress' statements about Mormonism, some of them made during Romney's 2008 presidential run. One, in particular, in which Jeffress called Mormonism "a cult," captured the interest of reporters.
From the Values Voter stage, Jefrress made the same point more subtly. "Those of us who are conservative, evangelical Christians are going to have a choice to make...." he said. "Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ? Rick Perry… is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ."
Perry, on taking the podium, was quick to express his appreciation for Jeffress' endorsement of his "genuine" Christianity. "And Pastor Jeffress...he knocked it out of the park, as we like to say -- a fellow who on any given Sunday is working with 10,000 Texans in his church. So I just again want to say thank you to quite a leader."
With Jeffress having established bona fides as the real Christian in the race, Perry devoted most of his speech to economic issues, and bashing President Barack Obama on the state of the economy, which he attributed to the president's purported lack of belief in American exceptionalism.
Perry tried to cover his tracks a bit on the subject of immigration, where he had got into trouble with the right for defending his belief in providing in-state tuition benefits to the children of undocumented immigrants who brought them to the U.S. without papers. To do otherwise, Perry had said in a debate, would be "heartless." In his speech to the Values Voters, Perry touted his record on border security, his veto of a bill that would have allowed undocumented workers to have drivers licenses, and a "voter ID law to protect the integrity of our elections." His speech was well-delivered and well-received, but met with less enthusiasm than the stemwinder delivered later that day by Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, who is now running ahead of Perry in some polls.
After his appearance at the podium, Pastor Jeffress was only too happy to take a lap around the bases with reporters in a hallway at the Omni Shoreham in Washington, D.C., the hotel where the conference took place, to carry the message that Romney is, essentially, not a Christian.
"Do you believe that Mormonism is a cult?" asked Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches.
"Absolutely," Jeffress replied. "Our Southern Baptist Convention has labeled it as a cult."
"Have you expressed this view to Gov. Perry?" asked Slate's David Weigel.
"No. He is not aware of my views on Mormonism, nor am I aware of his," Jeffress said.