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'Cult of Mormon' comment leads Newt Gingrich's Iowa political director, Craig Bergman, to resign

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 14 2011 11:56 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich makes his way to speak to a group of students, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011, at the University of Iowa College of Public Health in Iowa City, Iowa.

Associated Press

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Craig Bergman joined Newt Gingrich's team last Thursday as the Iowa political director for the Republican frontrunner. He resigned Wednesday after he appeared to call Mormonism a "cult."

But today, the website that quoted Bergman said it didn't agree that the comment should be characterized that way.

The comment actually was made a week ago, on Dec. 7, the day before Gingrich hired Bergman. Bergman was part of a focus group put together by McClatchy newspapers and TheIowaRepublican.com. The Iowa Republican's editor, Craig Robinson, told The Des Moines Register that Bergman was speaking as an undecided voter and a tea party representative.

"There is a national pastor who is very much on the anti-Mitt Romney bandwagon," Bergman said in the story on the focus group meeting posted at TheIowaRepublican.com. "A lot of the evangelicals believe God would give us four more years of Obama just for the opportunity to expose the cult of Mormon. …There's a thousand pastors ready to do that."

Bergman was primarily referring to Rev. Robert Jeffress, a Rick Perry backer who created a lot of controversy in early October when he referred to the LDS Church as a cult. The charge set off a media firestorm and seemed to deal a crippling blow to Perry's presidential campaign.

Although Gingrich's team hired Bergman the day after he made the comments, he resigned Tuesday apparently at the campaign's behest.

"He made a comment to a focus group prior to becoming an employee that is inconsistent with Newt 2012's pledge to run a positive and solutions-orientated campaign,"Gingrich campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond said in a press release Tuesday.

Wednesday morning, the Los Angeles Times framed Bergman's resignation carefully, saying he left "after he suggested that evangelical pastors would oppose Mitt Romney as a candidate for president to "'expose the cult of Mormon.'"

The Iowa Republican came to Bergman's defense Wednesday, indicating that others might be taking Bergman's comments out of context: "TheIowaRepublican.com believes Bergman was not making a statement that reflected his own views of the Mormon religion, but was relaying what he heard from the 'national pastor' referenced in his comment."

Whether Bergman himself believed Mormonism is a cult, that he agreed to resign is a sign of a new era, said Religion Dispatches blogger Joanna Brooks.

"It's official," Brooks wrote. "It is no longer acceptable to call The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the fourth-largest religious institution in the United States, a church with seven million members in the U.S. and 14 million members around the world, a 'cult.'"

Last month, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a survey indicating that "white evangelical Protestants — a key element of the GOP electoral base — are more inclined than the public as a whole to view Mormonism as a non-Christian faith." However, the study report also said that "there is no evidence that Romney's Mormon faith would prevent rank-and-file Republicans, including white evangelicals, from coalescing around him if he wins the GOP nomination. Rather, the same Republicans who may have doubts about Romney's faith are among the most vehement opponents of Barack Obama."

The Times also pointed out that Bergman's "cult" comment wasn't his only quote worth noting during the focus group. He also referred to Gingrich — the man he would agree to represent the very next day — as "the smartest unwise man in America."

The Huffington Post reported that a survey released Tuesday "showed Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) virtually tied in Iowa at 22 and 21 percent, respectively, with Romney trailing at 16 percent ahead of the Jan. 3 caucuses."

EMAIL: twalch@desnews.com

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