- (Photo: The Christian Post/Amanda Winkler)
The Robert Jeffress controversy surrounding Mormon presidential contender Mitt Romney most likely does not mean anything good for the GOP candidate, several political speakers of various backgrounds and views expressed Monday during a Politico online debate.
Jeffress, senior pastor at the Dallas First Baptist Church, has caused a firestorm over comments he made Friday about former Massachusetts governor not being a Christian because he is a Mormon. He also called Mormonism a cult.
The online Politico debate, moderated by journalist David Mark, was consider the questions of how much, if at all, the controversy will hurt Romney's candidacy, or possibly help him by allowing the former Massachusetts governor to play to the victim of intolerant theocrats.
A former chairman of the Republican National Committee and Maryland lieutenant governor Michael S. Steele condemned Jeffress' comment.
"The more tolerant we say we are, the less tolerant we show ourselves to be," Steele stated. He added, "Poisonous language will never advance our cause," echoing Romney in his remarks at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.
However, he added that any attempt by Romney or his team to "play the victim" of racism and intolerance will make the presidential hopeful "no better than those who use religion to justify their intolerance."
"Pastor Jeffress should have recalled Ephesians 5:15 before he spoke: 'Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise.' I would suggest Romney do the same," Steele stated.
Garry South, a political consultant at The Garry South Group, who also participated in the debate, said the re-emergence of questions about Romney's Mormon religion are not helpful to him at all.
"I grew up in the evangelical tradition myself, and although Rev. Jeffress' comments may be considered politically incorrect by some, they reflect exactly the way most evangelicals view and talk about Mormonism," he said. "I can't even count how many sermons I heard as a kid about cults, with Mormonism always at the top of the list."
South added that, with evangelicals constituting such a large part of the Republican voting base, Romney will not be able to "sweep away the very substantial doubts they have about the origins and beliefs of Mormons by playing the victim card."
Professor of political science at Emory University, Andra Gillespie, said the fact that Romney's faith is being raised in a second election cycle is a problem.
"It shows that there is still some bias against his beliefs," Gillespie said. "Romney may be able to overcome this hurdle in the primary season, in part because his more clearly evangelical opponents (Bachmann and Perry) have serious weaknesses that could upend their candidacies. But this could still be an issue in the general election."
When it comes to Mormonism, a survey conducted by Lawrence Research in September suggested that a whopping 86 percent of American voters are confused when it comes to Mormon beliefs and the issue of polygamy. The survey stated at the time that the two Mormon presidential hopefuls, Romney and Jon Hunstman, could suffer at the polls because of that confusion.
Of those who correctly answered that Mormons do not practice polygamy, 39 percent would definitely consider voting for a Mormorn candidate, compared to an average 26 percent among the remaining participants, according to the poll.
The Church of Jesus Christ and Later-day Saints refused to comment on the issue in detail Monday, instead directing The Christian Post to its website for information, in the words of a church representative, that best describes what "our beliefs are and how Jesus Christ is central to our faith."