ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Religion is once again a flashpoint in the presidential campaign. As we just heard, Jon Huntsman is Mormon. More importantly, so is the current Republican frontrunner, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. And last week, a Southern Baptist pastor said the Mormon faith is a cult and that Mitt Romney is not a Christian. In doing so, he pulled back the curtain on a divide among Christians.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has that story.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, felt no remorse after he characterized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as a cult. As he explained on MSNBC this week, it fits the definition long held by traditional Christian theology.
ROBERT JEFFRESS: Mormonism has its own human leader in Joseph Smith, it has its own set of doctrines, it has its own religious book - The Book of Mormon, in addition to the Bible. And so by that definition, it is a theological cult.
HAGERTY: Jeffress is theologically correct, says Richard Land at the Southern Baptist Convention. But he says, culturally and socially, the Mormon Church is not a cult.
Dr. RICHARD LAND: It's not like the Branch Davidians. It's not like Jim Jones. These people are the pillars of your community. They're the president of the rotary. I mean, they don't even drink coffee.
HAGERTY: But Land quickly adds Mormonism is not Christian. And, according to surveys, 75% of evangelical pastors agree, it's a new religion.
LAND: It's the fourth Abrahamic religion, with Judaism being the first, Christianity being the second, Islam being the third, and Mormonism being the fourth, with Joseph Smith playing the role of the Prophet Mohammed and the Book of Mormon playing the role of the Koran.
HAGERTY: Of course, Mormons hotly disagree, saying that Jesus is central to their faith, as is the doctrine of sin and redemption.
Land says evangelicals share conservative social values with Mormons, including opposition to abortion and gay marriage. And it's clear that many evangelical leaders like Mitt Romney, because they see him as having the best chance of beating President Obama.
Yet, evangelicals in the pews seem more ambivalent. In a recent poll, 42 percent said they have a favorable view of Mormons and 40 percent do not. You could pick up on that sentiment when Robert Jeffress spoke to his congregation in Dallas on Sunday.
JEFFRESS: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Mormonism are all false religions. And I stand by those statements.
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HAGERTY: Patrick Mason, an expert on the Mormon Church, at Claremont Graduate University, says anti-Mormonism is as old as Mormonism, beginning with the founder Joseph Smith, who was killed. He says anti-Mormonism is no longer violent but it's still alive and well.
PATRICK MASON: I think there's no doubt it still exists. It's still very powerful. A lot of evangelical churches have sessions or classes, in which they educate their members against the teachings of Mormonism and other so called cults.
HAGERTY: In part, it's because some evangelicals consider Mormon doctrines and practices a little strange, such as the claim that Jesus Christ made an appearance in the Americas or that people can become gods and have their own planet in the afterlife.
But there's something else. Mason says evangelicals are threatened by the rise of secularism and they fear they're losing grasp on the culture.
MASON: They see Mormonism, along with lots of other new religious movements - like the Moonies and Scientologists and Jehovah's Witnesses and others - they see them as eroding the foundations and challenging the authority of traditional Christianity.
HAGERTY: Yet, nearly 60 percent of evangelicals say they could vote for a Mormon for president. And faced with choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, many leaders believe evangelicals would pull the lever for Romney.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
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