Mitt Romney's Mormon faith drew more than usual media attention to the Values Voter Summit over the weekend and exposed, to the glare of the media spotlight, the antipathy of some evangelicals to his candidacy, which could be tied to his Mormon faith, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
The controversy began when prominent evangelical Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress took to the stage at the annual gathering of evangelical Christians on Friday to introduce Rick Perry. The Texas pastor said:
"Rick Perry's a Christian. He's an evangelical Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ...Mitt Romney's a good moral person, but he's not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity."
Jeffress told the First Baptist Church of Dallas congregation Sunday that he intends to keep speaking out against "false religions."
"I feel like I ought to use, personally, whatever influence I might have to try to elect a godly leader and place him in the White House," Jeffress said. "It is important for us to elect Christian leaders who embrace biblical principles."
Radio host and stalwart conservative William Bennett took exception to Jefress' remarks and told the audience, "Do not give voice to bigotry." He then addressed Jefress directly by saying, "You did Rick Perry no good, sir, in what you had to say."
Despite being rebuffed by Bennett, Jefress' remarks appear to hold sway with a great deal of evangelical Christians, at least as it relates to the opinion of Mormons as not being Christians.
In a Pew Research Center poll released last May, white evangelical Protestants were more likely than non-evangelical white Protestants to view the Mormon religion as very different from their own. Just 40 percent of all white evangelicals viewed Mormons as Christians.
Such a finding could be detrimental to the candidacy of Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. John Huntsman, especially in light of a 2008 Pew exit poll which showed that 60 percent of those who voted in the G.O.P. Iowa caucuses, and an identical percentage of Republican voters in the South Carolina primary, were evangelicals.
At his appearance at the Values Voter Summit Saturday, Romney attempted to keep his remarks focused on the economy, a believed source of strength for the former Massachusetts governor in a presidential campaign against President Barack Obama.
According to his campaign, Romney, nevertheless, took the opportunity to address radio host and American Family Association issues director Bryan Fisher, who has said:
"Mormonism is not an orthodox Christian faith. It just is not. They have a different Gospel, they have a completely different definition of who Christ is and so forth, I mean, the list could be multiplied endlessly," as was reported by the website Right Wing Watch.
Fisher continued, "And it was very clear that the Founding Fathers did not intend to preserve automatically religious liberty for non-Christian faiths."
Romney appealed to civility Sunday, saying, "The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate."
He added, "The task before us is to focus on the conservative beliefs and the values that unite us. Let no agenda narrow our vision or drive us apart."
Ultimately, however, Romney's success will rely on the opinion of evangelical and other conservative voters, who will decide whether, irrespective of his religion, he is worthy of their support.
The conference, which annually features a straw poll, declared Rep. Ron Paul the winner of its 2011 referendum over the weekend, with 37 percent of the votes. Businessman Herman Cain followed with 23 percent, while Romney followed in third place, managing to capture only 4 percent.