GOP Presidential Contenders Face Religious Test Questions at Debate
The question of faith and its influence for determining a presidential candidate came up Tuesday night in a GOP debate that was marked by heated verbal battles.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who are both Roman Catholic, argued that faith says a lot about a candidate.
"It's a legitimate thing to look at as to what the tenets and teachings of that faith are with respect to how you live your life and how you would govern this country," Santorum said. "With respect to what is the road to salvation, that's a whole different story. That's not applicable to what the role is of being the president or a senator or any other job."
Gingrich offered a similar view. "None of us should rush in judgment of others in the way in which they approach God," Gingrich said. "But I think all of us would also agree that there's a very central part of your faith in how you approach public life. And I, frankly, would be really worried if somebody assured me that nothing in their faith would affect their judgments, because then I'd wonder, where's your judgment – how can you have judgment if you have no faith? And how can I trust you with power if you don't pray?"
Texas Gov. Rick Perry simply said his faith is ingrained. "I can no more remove my faith than I can that I'm the son of a tenant farmer," he said.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, as a Mormon, faced public resistance to his religion during his 2008 run for the nomination. The issue has only recently haunted his candidacy this cycle, highlighted again with comments made by a Southern Baptist pastor–and Perry supporter–Robert Jeffress' that ignited a controversy at a summit hosted by the Family Research Council.
Romney argued for tolerance of religion.
"I don't suggest you distance yourself from your faith any more than I would," Romney told Perry. "[But] the founders of this country went to great length to make sure – and even put it in the Constitution – that we would not choose people who represent us in government based upon their religion, that this would be a nation that recognized and respected other faiths, where there's a plurality of faiths, where there was tolerance for other people and faiths."
Romney took advantage of the topic to criticize "the concept that we select people based on the church or the synagogue they go to," which he called "very dangerous and an enormous departure from the principles of our Constitution."
Romney added, "With regards to the disparaging comments about my faith, I've heard worse, so I'm not going to lose sleep over that."
Jeffress, introducing Perry at the Values Voter Summit Oct. 7, called Mormonism a "cult," clarifying after the comment became a controversy that he meant a "theological cult."
In an op-ed for the Washington Post published Tuesday, Jeffress said critics were attempting to eliminate a discussion about religion from political discourse, arguing that "our religious beliefs define the very essence of who we are."
Perry, asked during the debate to respond to Romney's previous call to repudiate comments made by Jeffress about Romney's Mormonism, said he "didn't agree" with Jeffress's statement but indicated he would not condemn him for making it. "I don't agree with [the comments]. I can't apologize any more than that," he said.
The candidates' exchange over religion was only slightly less unruly than the night's previous heated interaction over the topics of healthcare and immigration, both of which resulted in candidates talking over one another and ignoring the moderator, CNN's Anderson Cooper, when he attempted to intervene.
During one such exchange, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney put his hand on Texas Gov. Rick Perry's shoulder as though to restrain him from continuing to speak.
"You have a problem with allowing somebody else to finish speaking. And I would suggest that if you want to become president of the United States you've got to let both people speak," Romney told Perry.
Despite high expectations of his ability to appeal to both conservatives and evangelicals, Perry's campaign has appeared to struggle in recent polls following a quick succession of debates right after his August entrance into the race. In the last three weeks, former Godfathers CEO Herman Cain surged to join Romney as one of the frontrunners in national polls.