NASHUA - Four years ago, Mitt Romney rarely talked about his Mormon faith, waiting until late in the race to deliver a major address reassuring evangelical Christians that his moral core was little different from theirs.
The former Massachusetts governor is showing little such reluctance this time around. Romney has responded swiftly and directly to inflammatory comments about his Mormonism, including one made last weekend by Pastor Robert Jeffress, a supporter of Governor Rick Perry of Texas, who said Romney was part of a cult and not a Christian.
“I would call upon Governor Perry to repudiate the sentiment and the remarks made by that pastor,’’ Romney said Tuesday at one of the highest-profile events of his campaign, an endorsement by New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie.
Added Romney: “I just don’t believe that that kind of divisiveness based upon religion has a place in this country.’’
Such a response represents a shift for the candidate, Romney advisers say.
“It’s not political. It’s personal,’’ said one adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a topic considered sensitive. “And he feels there’s no place in this campaign for it.’’
Mark DeMoss, an evangelical public relations executive who supports Romney, was with Romney for several hours over the weekend after the comments were made. “On a very personal level, I hurt for him. I was embarrassed as an evangelical that another evangelical would do what Robert Jeffress did,’’ DeMoss said. “I don’t blame [Romney] for being fed up with it.’’
Jeffress did not respond yesterday to requests for comment.
Romney has had a trying relationship with religious conservatives, who make up a key part of Perry’s base. Even after his address on his faith in late 2007, the level of distrust remains high. In a New York Times-CBS News poll released last month, more than one third of likely Republican voters said most people they know would not vote for a Mormon.
Evangelicals are an important voting bloc, particularly throughout the South and in some early-voting states, such as Iowa.
Some party leaders in the Hawkeye State yesterday downplayed the flareup over religion.
“I don’t want to get into the whole Mormon debate,’’ said Steve Scheffler, an evangelical leader and a Republican National Committee member from Iowa. “The bigger concern right now is whether he’s willing to come and engage with caucus-goers.’’
Scheffler’s group, the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, is hosting a presidential forum Oct. 22 that most of the candidates are planning to attend, but so far, Romney is not among them.
“The bottom line is if he’s the nominee I don’t think people are going to be concerned with his particular faith,’’ Scheffler said. “Defeating the person in the White House is going to be the main concern.’’
Religion became a major point of discussion during the last presidential campaign, but Romney did not pointedly address the issue until about a month before the Iowa caucuses, when he delivered a speech meant to counter the building skepticism about his faith.
“My faith is the faith of my fathers - I will be true to them and to my beliefs,’’ he said. “Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it. But I think they underestimate the American people. . . . Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.’’
Just a week later one of Romney’s rivals, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, asked openly, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?’’ Huckabee, an ordained minister, later apologized for the comments. He also won the Iowa caucuses.
Romney’s advisers, who said they thought doubts over his Mormonism had been dispelled during the 2008 campaign, were surprised when the topic came up again Friday night. Jeffress made the comments - calling Romney “a good, moral person, but someone who is part of a cult’’ - to reporters after he introduced Perry at the Values Voter Summit in Washington.
Jeffress is not the only person who has recently challenged Romney’s Mormonism. Radio host Bryan Fischer had regularly sparked criticism for his religious diatribes. Among other positions, he believes Mormons and Muslims do not deserve full constitutional rights.
Fischer was also among the speakers at the Values Voter Summit, and Romney used his own address there to respond to the radio host’s anti-Mormon statements. “Poisonous language,’’ Romney said, “doesn’t advance our cause.
“It’s never softened a single heart or changed a single mind,’’ he added. “The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate.’’
Although Romney did not identify Fischer by name, a Romney spokeswoman confirmed that the comments were directed at him.
Not only has Romney responded publicly to Jeffress, but so have several senior Romney advisers and at least one of his backers. At the press conference announcing Christie’s endorsement, the New Jersey governor backed Romney up, saying, “Any campaign that associates itself with that type of comment is beneath the office of president of the United States.’’
Perry has done little to distance himself from the Jeffress comments, calling Romney’s latest comments “a distraction from the fact that RomneyCare served as a blueprint for ObamaCare.’’
Romney’s press office declined to comment and would not make Romney available yesterday to talk about the topic.
Romney advisers say they don’t expect him to deliver an address on religion similar to the one he did four years ago, although they acknowledge he may have to if he becomes the GOP nominee and there is more scrutiny over his background.
Although Romney has been more assertive in defending attacks against his faith, he still rarely brings it up himself.
He has, however, occasionally sprinkled religion into his speeches. At a Tea Party-backed forum last month in South Carolina, Romney was asked about what type of decision-making process he would bring to the White House. “I go on my knees,’’ Romney said. “I’m a person of faith and I look for inspiration. . . . And then, with all that God has endowed you - with your mind, with your values - you make that decision.’’
Yesterday, while speaking to a room full of Romney supporters at Martha’s Exchange restaurant in downtown Nashua, Ann Romney mentioned the rigors of the campaign and, at times, seeing her husband under scrutiny. “The grandchildren are praying for Mitt every day,’’ she said. “They’re calling us, they’re sending us little notes.’’Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.