It was inevitable. At some point in this campaign, Mitt Romney's religion was going to become an issue. That point turned out to be around 3:15 p.m. on Friday, when prominent Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress introduced Rick Perry to the audience at the Values Voter Summit thusly:
"Do we want a candidate who is a conservative out of convenience or one who is a conservative out of deep conviction?” Jeffress said. “Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person — or one who is a born-again follower of the lord Jesus Christ?”
Jeffress called Perry a “genuine follower of Jesus Christ.” The pastor did not mention Perry’s rival Mitt Romney by name, but he told reporters after his remarks on Friday that Mormonism was a “cult.”
Perry then strode up to the microphone and said Jeffress "knocked it out of the park" with his "very powerful introduction." But the Perry campaign quickly distanced itself from Jeffress's remarks about Mormonism, even as Tony Perkins, the Family Research Council president, confirmed that the Perry campaign had signed off on Jeffress to make Perry's introduction.
Speaking of Perkins — the ringleader of the whole summit — he doesn't think Mormons are Christians either.
In an interview late Friday, Perkins defended Romney's social conservative credentials, calling him a "pro-life, pro-marriage candidate."
But the FRC president also said he believes that "Mormonism is not Christianity."
"For evangelicals who are looking at Mormonism versus evangelicalism from a theological perspective, they are different," Perkins said. "Mormonism and Christianity, I believe, are two different things."
So — Jeffress, Perkins ... anyone else at this summit feel like freaking out Christian voters? Oh, right: Bryan Fischer, a radio host and prominent figure at the American Family Association, but definitely not a Constitutional scholar, has said that the First Amendment doesn't apply to Mormons. And he happens to be speaking directly after Romney on Saturday morning!
Clearly there are some pretty prominent Christian voices who aren't comfortable with Romney's religion or are outright hostile to it. This is nothing new — Romney faced the same kind of opposition from evangelical leaders when he ran in 2008. But unlike in 2008, in the 2012 race, Romney is the front-runner. There's a very good chance he could be his party's nominee. If that happens, will his religious beliefs convince Republican voters to stay at home on election day?
After the Jeffress comments on Friday afternoon, we asked a random sampling of Values Voter Summit attendees their thoughts. "I don’t agree with that and I don’t think that should be an issue in our presidential campaign," one Pennsylvania woman, a Ron Paul supporter, said of Jeffress's comments. "You know, it’s just a distraction and that annoys me.” Joseph, a Catholic University student felt the same way. "It’s a low blow. I don’t agree with that," he told us.
Others admitted to being uneasy about Romney's religion, but maintained that it wouldn't affect their support for him, or lack thereof. Alex from Massachusetts said he only considers Mormons to be Christians "to a certain extent." He'd have a problem voting for Romney if he was the GOP nominee, "but not because he’s a Mormon, just because I don’t agree with him on some of the issues." Jody from Maryland "sort of" agrees with Jeffress, but told me, "I would have a problem voting for Mitt Romney because I think he’s a little too moderate, but not because of the Mormon issue.”
Meanwhile, a middle-aged couple who said they, too, didn't believe Mormons were Christians said they would "probably have to hold [their] noses and vote for" Romney anyway. And Gordon, an elderly fellow from Ohio, told us bluntly, "I feel that Mormonism is a cult." However, "if he’s the nominee, I’ll have to vote for him. I don’t know about you, but we have to defeat Barack Obama." One woman put it even more succinctly: "You know what the deal is? It’s whoever will beat Obama. I don’t care.”
It's clear that Romney's religion is going to be a problem for some Republican voters, particularly if prominent voices keep referring to Mormonism as a cult. But it's notable that nobody we spoke to, even those wary of Mormonism, claimed that it would affect their vote. Anti-Obama sentiment, it seems, may be a stronger motivator than anti-Mormon sentiment. Romney can only hope.
Related: Conservative radio host Bill Bennett condemned Jeffress on Saturday morning.