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Mitt Romney

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Catholics and evangelicals came to the LDS Church's and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's defense Wednesday, calling on the Rev. Al Sharpton to answer for suggesting Mormons don't believe in God.

"Extraordinarily bigoted" was how Romney described Sharpton's comment made during a debate on religion held Monday in New York City, where Sharpton said, "as for the one Mormon running for office, those that really believe in God will defeat him anyway, so don't worry about that, that's a temporary situation."

The former Democratic presidential candidate spent Wednesday defending his remark. He told the Associated Press that he was not questioning Romney's belief in God but was attempting to contrast himself with the atheist author he was debating, Christopher Hitchens.

"What I said was that we would defeat him, meaning as a Republican," Sharpton told the wire service. "A Mormon, by definition, believes in God. They don't believe in God the way I do, but by definition, they believe in God."

Sharpton told CNN's Paula Zahn on Wednesday evening he was responding to Hitchens' claim that Mormons are an example of how religion promotes racism because the church had excluded blacks.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not grant the priesthood to males of all races until 1978.

Sharpton said if Mormons did not in the past see blacks as equal, they're not "real worshippers of God because I do not believe God distinguishes between people. That is not bigotry. That's responding to their beliefs."

It was Hitchens who "attacked the Mormons," not him, Sharpton said. "I'm the one that belongs to a race that couldn't join the Mormons and I'm the one that's the bigot," he said, calling on Romney to explain his views on his church's position on blacks.

Romney, who would be the first member of the LDS Church to serve as president if his race for the White House is successful in 2008, responded earlier in the day to Sharpton on the MSNBC cable network news channel's "Morning Joe" program.

"I can only, hearing that statement, wonder whether there's not bigotry that still remains in America," Romney said, adding that most people "have no interest in applying a religious test or suggesting that God wants one faith or another to succeed in becoming the president."

Romney, who led Salt Lake's successful 2002 Winter Olympics before serving as governor of Massachusetts, called what Sharpton said an "extraordinarily bigoted kind of statement, and I find it really quite extraordinary."

A spokesman for the LDS Church, Scott Trotter, had little to say about Sharpton's comment. "It's just campaign rhetoric and we're referring everyone back to Romney," Trotter said.

The Catholic League called for Sharpton to "be held accountable for his bigoted outburst" and suggesting it "should finish his career," just as Don Imus' recent racist statements resulted in the cancellation of his radio show. Sharpton was among Imus' harshest critics.

Kiera McCaffrey, the New York City-based league's director of communications, said Mormons are experiencing what Catholics did when John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960.

Kennedy, who became the nation's first Catholic president, ultimately had to address the question of whether he would be controlled by his church in a speech made just before the election. Romney's faith has raised similar concerns, especially among evangelical Christians.

"Catholics went through it. Now we see members of the LDS Church going through it," McCaffrey told the Deseret Morning News. "We're not hypocrites. If we're going to defend the rights of Catholics to participate in public life, we're going to do the same across the board."

The Rev. Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister who heads the National Clergy Council, issued a statement calling on Sharpton to "immediately apologize to Mr. Romney and the good people of the LDS Church and repent before God for such sinful hubris."

Schenck, who has met privately with Romney to talk about Mormonism, also said that "while many other Christian groups may have differences with LDS doctrine, to question someone else's sincerity of belief in God is the height of pharisaical arrogance."

The reaction to Sharpton's comment will help set boundaries for future discussions of Mormonism and other faiths in the campaign, said Kelly Patterson, director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

"You have evangelical groups and Catholic groups now saying that this is a line that has been crossed," Patterson said. "It helps not just Romney but all other candidates."

Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the controversy "will have no impact on how people perceive the LDS Church or Mitt Romney. ... This is much more about Sharpton."

He described Sharpton as "equal parts of publicity, pews and politics. I think publicity is driving this. It's another way for him to get back in the center of the storm. I think he enjoyed himself with Imus."

Jowers, a Romney supporter, said there "certainly is some irony and some hypocrisy in that (Sharpton) led the charge to get rid of Imus for an outrageous comment." Imus referred to members of the Rutgers University womens basketball team as "nappy-headed hos."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a statement that while Sharpton "is eager to play the political correctness card when it suits his purposes, he apparently sees nothing wrong with an offensive attack against Gov. Mitt Romney using his religion."

Sharpton's comment came in first half-hour or so of a two-hour debate on "Is God Great?" as he was explaining the religious roots of the civil rights movement lead by Martin Luther King Jr.

Earlier, Hitchens had offered what he said was a contemporary example of using religion to justify racism. A GOP presidential candidate, he said, was a member of the "so-called Mormon Church" that had taught "that the Bible separates the sons of Ham and makes them lesser."

Sharpton said there was no question about the civil rights movement being faith-based. "Let's not reinvent Dr. King any more than we try to reduce God to some denomination or convention," he said, before launching into his comment on an unnamed Mormon candidate.

According to a tape of the debate, held at the New York Public Library, the audience laughed at what was clearly a reference to Romney before Sharpton continued his defense of religion and God.

Hitchens, his debate partner, has written a new book, "God Is Not Great," that labels the LDS Church "a plain racket" that has turned "into a serious religion before our eyes." The debate was moderated by Slate Magazine's Jacob Weisberg, also critical of Mormons.

Weisberg wrote in the online magazine last December that rejecting a Mormon presidential candidate is not religious bigotry. "I wouldn't vote for someone who truly believes the founding whoppers of Mormonism," Weisberg said in the article.

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