The anticipated back-to-back speaking appearances of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, who said recently that Latter-day Saints aren't Christian and are therefore not entitled to First Amendment protections, materialized Saturday morning at the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C.
Result: a veiled-but-stern reference to Fischer from Romney, and a more direct attack on Romney from Fischer.
New York Magazine reports that Romney "somewhat obscurely" referenced both Fischer and Pastor Robert Jeffress toward the end of his speech. Jeffress, who is associated with another presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said yesterday that Romney isn't a "genuine follower of Jesus Christ" and later called the LDS Church a "cult." Romney's brief statement, New York Magazine said, "finally got to the big, anti-Mormon elephant in the room."
"Our values ennoble the citizen and strengthen the nation," Romney said. "We should remember that decency and civility are values too. One of the speakers who will follow me today has crossed that line, I think. Poisonous language doesn't advance our cause. It's never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind. The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate. 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."
Writing for The Atlantic, reporter Molly Ball wrote that "for Romney, little loved by this crowd anyway, there wasn't much risk in further alienating them with what might be seen as a cry for political correctness. His speech was more dutiful than passionate and didn't receive a single standing ovation."
Following Romney, New York Magazine said Fischer "immediately proclaimed that the next president must be of 'sincere, authentic, genuine, Christian faith'" — a clear statement against Romney, given Fischer's previous comment that he doesn't believe Romney is a Christian.
The Washington Post reported that Fischer also said: "We need a president who believes in the same creator that the Founders believed in."
An LDS Church spokesman said Friday evening "those who want to understand the centrality of Christ to our faith can learn more about us and what we believe by going to mormon.org," a website that explains Latter-day Saints believe that only by Christ's "mercy and grace can anyone be saved."
According to The Nation, Fischer saved his most scathing religious attack for Muslims. The magazine reported that a section of his speech was filled with "ugly anti-Muslim" rhetoric, including the proclamation that "I believe it's important that we have a president who understands that Islam is not a religion of peace but a religion of war and violence and death."
But the strongest rebuke of the morning may have come from Bill Bennett, radio host and former Secretary of Education. Speaking before Romney, Ball reports that Bennett told the audience "they must not 'give voice to bigotry,' arguing that ugly distractions like these would hurt the GOP.
"'I would say to Pastor Jeffress: You stepped on and obscured the words of Perry' as well as the other candidates, Bennett said. 'You did Rick Perry no good, sir, in what you had to say.'"
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