ABC News’ Michael Falcone, Jonathan Karl and Amy Bingham report:
Presidential candidate Rick Perry spoke at the Values Voter Summit, a gathering of hundreds of social conservatives in Washington, on Friday, but the evangelical pastor who introduced him stole the show, sparking a controversy in the process.
It was no ordinary opener from the prominent Southern Baptist Convention leader, Pastor Robert Jeffress, who endorsed Perry on Friday. Jeffress praised Perry for defunding Planned Parenthood in Texas, calling the provider of women’s health and abortion services, “that slaughterhouse for the unborn.”
He also lauded Perry’s “strong commitment to biblical values.”
“Do we want a candidate who is skilled in rhetoric or one who is skilled in leadership? Do we want a candidate who is a conservative out of convenience or one who is a conservative out of deep conviction?” Jeffress said. “Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person — or one who is a born-again follower of the lord Jesus Christ?”
Jeffress called Perry a “genuine follower of Jesus Christ.” The pastor did not mention Perry’s rival Mitt Romney by name, but he told reporters after his remarks on Friday that Mormonism was a “cult.”
Jeffress’ comments and his endorsement of Perry threatened to inject some tension into what has been a relatively quiet year for religion on the campaign trail and the Perry campaign sought to quiet the uproar.
The campaign’s official comment on Jeffress evolved quickly on Friday afternoon. When initially asked by ABC News whether Gov. Perry agreed that Mormonism is a cult, Perry spokesman Mark Miner said: “The governor doesn’t judge what is in the heart and soul of others. He leaves that to God.”
Miner would also not immediately say whether the governor believed it was wrong to call Mormonism a cult. ”It’s not his decision to judge that,” the spokesman said. He added that conference organizers decided who should introduce Perry at the summit, not the campaign.
But minutes later, Miner called ABC News with a new statement: “He does not believe it is a cult.”
Rather than distance himself from the pastor’s introductory remarks on Friday, when Perry took the podium, he thanked Jeffress for a “very powerful introduction.”
Perry added, “He knocked it out of the park.”
Friday was not the first time Jeffress, a pastor at a Dallas megachurch, has made disparaging statements about Mormonism.
Back in 2007, Jeffress had this to say about Romney: “Even though he talks about Jesus as his Lord and savior, he is not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. Mormonism is a cult.”
In 2008, Jeffress asserted that Mormons worship ”false” god and said: “I believe we should always support a Christian over a non-Christian.”
UPDATE: Michael Purdy, a spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provided this response to Friday’s controversial comments by Pastor Jeffress: “We really don’t want to comment on a statement made at a political event but 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.”
And Planned Parenthood spokesman Tait Sye called Jeffress comments “far out of the mainstream.”
“Planned Parenthood health centers are trusted nonprofit health care providers to which one in five women have turned at some point in her life for preventive health care and information, including birth control, lifesaving cancer screenings, STD testing and annual exams,” Sye said in a statement.