(Updates with Huntsman delivering foreign policy speech, beginning in 23rd paragraph.)
Oct. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Republican presidential candidates attempted to deflect questions about whether frontrunner Mitt Romney, a Mormon, could be considered a Christian, an issue raised by evangelical voters during Romney’s 2008 campaign and spotlighted again by a backer of Texas Governor Rick Perry.
“I’m not running for theologian in chief,” said Herman Cain, a former chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza, in an interview yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “He’s a Mormon. That much I know.”
He also said, “I am not going to do an analysis of Mormonism versus Christianity for the sake of answering that,” adding the question is “not going to boost this economy.”
The question surfaced as eight of the Republican candidates prepare for debate tomorrow with a focus on the economy sponsored by Bloomberg News and the Washington Post at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Michele Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota, called the discussion about Romney’s religion inconsequential, though she declined to comment on his background.
“To make this a big issue is just ridiculous right now because every day I’m on the street talking to people, this is not what people are talking about,” she said on CNN’s program.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who is running on the strength of his social conservative credentials, took a more direct approach, saying in an interview on “Fox News Sunday” that he doesn’t believe Mormonism is a cult.
“I’m not an expert on Mormonism,” he said. “All I know is that every Mormon I know is a good and decent person, has great moral values.”
When asked if Romney could be considered a “true Christian,” Santorum said, “He says he’s a Christian.”
Republican candidate Jon Huntsman Jr., also a Mormon, brushed off questions raised about his faith as he campaigned in New London, New Hampshire, yesterday.
“Discussion of Mormonism doesn’t expand our economic base, it doesn’t secure our position in the world,” he told reporters. “I have no idea why people are wasting, spending so much political capital and bandwidth on this issue. It’s nonsensical.”
The Rev. Robert Jeffress, a Baptist minister from Dallas who introduced Perry at the Values Voter Summit in Washington on Oct. 7, had highlighted the question of whether evangelical Christians -- a major bloc within the Republican Party -- should support Romney. He said they shouldn’t, labeling Mormonism a “cult” in comments made to reporters after his introduction of Perry at the conference.
Jeffress described Romney as “a good moral person, but someone who is part of a cult.”
Perry spokesman Mark Miner said the governor “does not believe Mormonism is a cult.” And Perry, campaigning that day in Iowa, said he disagreed with the characterization. At the same time, he boasted of his “conservative record,” urging Iowans to find an “authentic and conservative leader.”
Romney’s faith and changing positions on issues such as abortion rights and gay marriage hurt him among evangelical Christians in his failed 2008 bid for the Republican nomination.
Romney has sought to play down those matters this year, in part by focusing on the economy and offering himself as the candidate with the right credentials to deal with issues.
In a speech he gave Oct. 8 at the Values Voter Summit, he said religious difference shouldn’t divide Republicans and that “poisonous language does not advance our cause.”
Huntsman, a former Utah governor and son of a prominent Mormon leader, said the pastor’s comments had little impact on him emotionally, noting the diversity of his family.
“I don’t tune into it,” Huntsman said. “My wife was raised Episcopalian. My kids have gone to Catholic schools.”
Huntsman, speaking to more than 100 people at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire yesterday, predicted that he would win the state’s primary election in December or January.
“This state demands authenticity,” Huntsman said. “Having name recognition doesn’t necessarily guarantee victory at the end of the day.”
The audience was roughly half students, including some who had been assigned to attend for class credit.
Huntsman gave a foreign policy address today at Southern New Hampshire University, in which he called for a scaled-back U.S. role in international engagements.
“We must right-size our current foreign entanglements,” Huntsman said. “Simply put, we are risking American blood and treasure in parts of the world where our strategy needs to be rethought.”
The former U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama framed his foreign policy doctrine as one focused on boosting the domestic economy. He called for expanding U.S. economic relationships across the globe, in part through finding areas of cooperation with China and congressional ratification of new trade deals.
Some evangelical voters don’t believe that Mormons are Christians because they use the Book of Mormon as a primary holy text in addition to the King James Bible. Their opposition helped end Romney’s candidacy for the Republican nomination in 2008.
Romney came under attack during that campaign for changing his stances on the kinds of social issues often used as a litmus test by evangelical voters. He had supported legal abortion and advocated for gay rights when he won the Massachusetts governorship in 2002. When he sought the 2008 presidential nomination, he supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and opposed abortion rights.
Romney lost the Iowa caucuses, the first round of voting in the presidential primaries, to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher with strong ties to the evangelical community. Sixty percent of Republicans who attended the caucuses described themselves to pollsters as born-again or evangelical Christians.
Like Huckabee, Perry has longstanding ties to the evangelical community. More than 30,000 people attended a prayer rally he hosted on Aug. 7, a week before he entered the presidential race, which featured speeches and prayers by evangelical Christian leaders including James Dobson, founder of the Focus on the Family ministry, and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, another Republican candidate from Georgia, said yesterday that Romney’s religion should be left out of the political debate.
“None of us should sit in judgment on somebody else’s religion,” he said in an interview on CBS’s “Face The Nation.” “I think he’s a Mormon, and Mormons define themselves as a branch of Christianity.”
--Editors: Don Frederick, Mark Silva
To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; John McCormick in Chicago at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at firstname.lastname@example.org