(Photo: REUTERS / Adam Hunger)
Mitt Romney and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday denounced recent remarks made by an evangelical pastor that have been deemed as anti-Mormon. Romney went as far as calling on GOP rival Rick Perry, who was endorsed by that pastor, to "repudiate" the remarks.
"I just don't believe that that kind of divisiveness based upon religion has a place in this country," Romney told reporters after receiving an endorsement for president from Christie.
"I would call upon Gov. Perry to repudiate the sentiment and the remarks made by that pastor," the former Massachusetts governor stated.
Romney was referring to comments made last week by Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, a 10,000-member congregation. While attending the Values Voter Summit, he said Friday that Mormonism is a cult and that Mitt Romney was not a real Christian.
"Evangelical Christians should not vote for Mitt Romney because he’s a Mormon, therefore not a real Christian," he further stated to The Christian Post.
While he did not make the "cult" comments when he was on stage, introducing Perry as a speaker at the summit, the Baptist pastor has still drawn a lot of fire.
Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, also a Mormon, called the pastor a "moron" for making such comments and called for more tolerance.
"This does not help the American people come to terms with the choices that they have in the 2012 election cycle," he told CNN Monday. "Let's stick to the big issues that really matter and leave religion off the table. Last I looked, that wasn't a prerequisite or a requirement for the presidency."
Jeffress has reaffirmed his beliefs to the media over the last few days but clarified that he and Perry are only "acquaintances." Perry does not know what Jeffress believes and has never heard his sermons, the pastor noted.
Meanwhile, other evangelicals have weighed in on the debate, including Dr. Albert Mohler Jr. of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He affirmed that Mormonism "is not historic biblical Christianity" and that there is nothing wrong with evangelicals voting for candidates who most closely identify with their beliefs.
He added, however, that "competence for public office is also an important Christian concern" and that "Christians, along with the general public, are not well served by political leaders who, though identifying as Christians, are incompetent."
Both Romney and Christie have called on Texas Governor Perry to distance himself from Jeffress' controversial remarks.
"These type of religious matters have nothing to do with the quality of somebody's ability to lead," Christie contended on Tuesday. "I think that any campaign that associates itself with that type of conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States in my view."
Mark Miner, spokesman for Perry, told the Associated Press that Perry would not repudiate the pastor's comments. But Perry disagrees with the Baptist pastor and believes Romney is a Christian, the spokesman noted.
"This political rhetoric from Gov. Romney isn't going to create one new job or help the economy," Miner told AP. "He's playing a game of deflection and the people of this country know this."
Romney and Perry are joining six other Republican candidates in New Hampshire Tuesday night for a debate sponsored by the Washington Post and Bloomberg News. The debate is focused exclusively on the economy.