Nightly News   |  October 09, 2011

Politics, religion a fiery mix

A Texas pastor and supporter of GOP frontrunner for president, Gov. Rick Perry, called Mormonism a cult. Candidates have shied away from the controversy all weekend. NBC's Mike Viqueira reports.

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>>> sensitive topics known to derail polite conversation at the dinner table are having the same effect on the campaign trail tonight. it started with a not so veiled comment about genuine christianity , by a supporter of republican presidential candidate rick perry . from there, it evolved into an attack on mitt romney and his mormon faith . and tonight, as the candidates try to quickly redirect the conversation, romney is once again facing the same question that dogged him since his first white house run, will his religion become an issue with voters? nbc's mike viqueira joins us now from the white house with more on this. good evening.

>> reporter: good evening to you, lester . there is more fallout today over the texas pastor's remarks attacking mitt romney 's faith . after years of wrestling of the issues of politics and faith , religion and politics , many are asking the question does it all still matter?

>> how are you all doing?

>> reporter: turning out the herman cain in south carolina , some gop voters were put off by the attack on mitt romney 's faith .

>> i don't believe that the mormon is a bad cult.

>> it is definitely a form of christianity , but to say that again is very divisive and i don't think it is helping anything right now.

>> reporter: today, gop candidates were shying away from the controversy.

>> senator, do you think mormonism is a cult?

>> no, i don't.

>> mitt romney , is he a nonchristian?

>> i'm not running for thee lodgen in stave.

>> reporter: the firestorm began this weekend in washington when texas pastor robert jeffress introduced rick perry , praising his devout faith .

>> he is a true conservative and he is a general follower of jesus christ .

>> reporter: backstage, jeffress made his views on romney 's faith clear.

>> mormonism is not christianity , it always has been considered a cult by the mainstream of christianity .

>> reporter: jeffress opened up an old divide, while other christian faiths rely solely on biblical scripture , mormonism also follows the revelations of the church's founder, joseph smith .

>> evangelicals, many of them, have a theological beef with the church of latter day saints .

>> reporter: perry says he does not agree with jeffress. later at the same conference, romney called for unity from social conservatives .

>> poisonous language doesn't advance our cause.

>> reporter: this isn't the first time romney had to defend his faith . as a candidate in 2007 , he tried to assure conservative doubters.

>> if i'm fortunate to become your president, i will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest.

>> reporter: but experts say that this year the economy dominates, and the faith question may take a back seat.

>> this is really about the economy and about one's skills to be ceo of the nation.

>> reporter: and lester are with chris christie and sarah palin dropping out of the race, mitt romney is now the front-runner. he can expect a lot more flack. he's taken issue on abortion and gun control that don't jive with gop orthodoxy. lester .