Romney, a Mormon, is not a Christian, the Rev. Robert Jeffress said, but a member of a "cult."
"I believe we should always support a Christian over a non-Christian," Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, told a packed audience of journalists at last weekend's Religion Newswriters Association (RNA) annual meeting. "The value of electing a Christian goes beyond public policies. . . . Christians are uniquely favored by God, [while] Mormons, Hindus and Muslims worship a false god. The eternal consequences outweigh political ones. It is worse to legitimize a faith that would lead people to a separation from God."
Jeffress made his remarks during a luncheon debate with Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a law firm and educational organization that focuses on religious-liberty issues. The DeMoss Group, a Christian public-relations firm in Duluth, Ga., sponsored the event.
Sekulow, who also disagrees with Mormon theology but supported Romney's candidacy, argued he would rather have a president who promoted a conservative political agenda than one who shared his doctrinal positions.
"Jimmy Carter ran as a born-again Christian," Sekulow reasoned, "but his presidency did nothing for the issues I care about."
Mark DeMoss, the company's president, opened the session by describing his decision to lead Romney's outreach to conservative Christians. DeMoss said he had come to admire Romney, despite their theological differences, but was amazed at the vehement opposition to the Mormon's candidacy among Evangelicals.
"When making the choice of candidate for president, I don't care how different the person's theology is from mine, just like I don't care about my doctor's theology or the guy's who built my house or the architect's," DeMoss said in an interview this week. "I'm challenging people who would oppose a Mormon because he's a Mormon, but I'm also challenging people who would instantly embrace a Southern Baptist because he's a Southern Baptist. Both conclusions are bad."
DeMoss said he doesn't mind when people come to different conclusions about which candidate to support, but hopes as least "they're thinking."
The lively debate seemed to prove his point.
"It was one of the more spirited lunch discussions we've ever had at RNA," said RNA president Kevin Eckstrom, who noted that the journalist organization did not organize the event. "A lot of people were uncomfortable with what Dr. Jeffress said about Mormons, but what we were hoping for was something provocative that would get people talking, and certainly this did it."
Many reporters said they had never heard the word "cult," which Jeffress repeatedly called the LDS Church, used so "freely and recklessly," said Eckstrom, editor of Religion News Service in Washington, D.C. But Jeffress used the same word to describe "Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists and virtually everyone else."
It was useful for reporters to be aware of such strident views, Eckstrom said, because they are "completely mainstream in a lot of evangelical quarters."
First Baptist of Dallas "is not a backwater pulpit somewhere. It is a major church in Texas and in Southern Baptist circles," Eckstrom said. "It's a huge institution and a lot of followers. He's not just spouting these opinions for himself but proud of the fact that he was going back to his congregation and declare every other religion was wrong, and at least 10,000 people hear this position every week."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints insists that it is a Christian faith, though not a traditional brand of Christianity. LDS officials today declined to comment on Jeffress' statements until they see a transcript of the remarks, spokeswoman Kim Farah said.