GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's membership in the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has come under fire again — this time by a prominent Dallas minister who told his congregation Romney is not a Christian.
The Dallas Morning News has reported that the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, said in a sermon on Sept. 30 that while Romney "talks about Jesus as his Lord and savior, he is not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. Mormonism is a cult."
The newspaper story published Thursday said some members of the pastor's large audience began to applaud as he continued his discussion of Romney's faith as part of a talk titled "The Power of a Positive Purpose."
"What really distresses me is some of my ministerial friends and even leaders in our convention are saying, 'Oh, well, he talks about Jesus, we talk about Jesus. What's the big deal?' It is a big deal if anybody names another way to be saved except through Jesus Christ," the pastor said.
The Rev. Jeffress had prefaced his remarks about Romney by saying, "I'm going to get in trouble I know for saying this, but I think it needs to be said" and that he was "neither for nor against Mitt Romney ... he may make a worthy president."
"Unfortunate" was how Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho described the comments Friday in an e-mail to the Deseret Morning News.
"Dr. Jeffress' comments are unfortunate and certainly don't represent the beliefs of the growing number of evangelical and social conservative leaders from across the country who have lined up in support of Governor Romney's candidacy for president of the United States.
"These endorsements show recognition of the common values that Governor Romney shares with all Americans — strong family, strong moral fiber and a belief in doing what's right. Governor Romney is the strongest candidate to stand up for conservative values in the White House," Gitcho said.
Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said ministers who criticize Romney's faith "are being incredibly shortsighted to urge religious bigotry among their congregations against those who don't share their identical beliefs, especially when it could so easily be turned against them."
Jowers, a Romney supporter, said the Rev. Jeffress "is apparently clearly exasperated by some of the endorsements by evangelical leaders" that Romney has received. "A lot of people see a wave of evangelical support moving toward Romney right now," Jowers said.
This week, Bob Jones III, chancellor of the Christian fundamentalist school in South Carolina named for his family, endorsed Romney for president. Jones said he backed Romney because he would best represent conservative Americans.
"As a Christian I am completely opposed to the doctrines of Mormonism" Jones told The Greenville (S.C.) Times. "But I'm not voting for a preacher. I'm voting for a president. It boils down to who can best represent conservative American beliefs, not religious beliefs."
And earlier this week, Houston minister Joel Osteen told interviewer Larry King that Romney's faith would not affect whether he would support Romney's candidacy.
"I don't think that would affect me," Osteen said on Larry King Live. "I've heard him say that he believes Jesus is his savior, just like I do. I've studied it deeply, and maybe people don't agree with me, but I like to look at a person's values and what they stand for."
In May, the Rev. Al Sharpton traveled to Utah to meet with leaders of the LDS Church after making comments in a debate about religion that suggested Mormons don't believe in God and that Romney would be defeated because he was LDS.
Romney's faith has also been featured in the media, including a recent Newsweek cover story titled "A Mormon's Journey." But Romney has yet to decide whether to deliver a speech directly confronting critics of his beliefs, Gitcho said.