Texas Gov. Rick Perry has publicly distanced himself from the anti-Mormon rhetoric of a prominent Baptist minister who has endorsed his presidential campaign. But new evidence suggests that Perry’s team may be quietly advancing the notion that Mitt Romney’s faith should disqualify him from the White House.
The Daily Beast has obtained a series of emails that show an influential evangelical activist with close ties to the Perry campaign stressing the political importance of “juxtaposing traditional Christianity to the false God of Mormonism,” and calling for a “clarion call to Evangelical pastors and pews” that will be “the key to the primary” for Perry.
The activist in question is David Lane, a conservative Christian power broker who directed fundraising for Perry’s August prayer rally and was reportedly among the leading voices in the evangelical community lobbying for the Texas governor to jump into the 2012 race. The email thread—which took place over the past two weeks and includes discussion of both campaign strategy and Christian theology—was between Lane and Dick Bott, who heads Bott Radio Network, a self-described “leader in the development of Christian talk radio.”
On Oct. 12, Bott sent an email to Lane informing him that he would soon be recording an interview with the Rev. Robert Jeffress, the Perry backer and Baptist minister who had made headlines at the Value Voters Summit in early October for calling Mormonism a non-Christian “cult.” Jeffress also argued that Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney wasn’t deserving of the presidency because of his faith.
Bott indicated that the interview would be sympathetic to Jeffress, and defended the pastor for raising the Mormon issue: “What would anyone think if a candidate were a Scientologist?” Bott wrote. “Shouldn’t they want to know what the implications were that may flow therefrom? [sic]”
Lane responded the next day with a lengthy email that began, “Thank you for what you are doing and for your leadership. Getting out Dr. Jeffress [sic] message, juxtaposing traditional Christianity to the false god of Mormonism, is very important in the larger scheme of things.”
Publicly, the Perry campaign has insisted that Jeffress was not speaking at their behest when he attacked Romney’s religion, and Perry himself has said he does not personally believe that Mormonism is a cult. As recently as Friday, Perry attempted to dismiss the controversy, calling it a “sideshow” that voters were uninterested in, and reiterating, “We clearly said we didn’t agree with that statement.”
But in the emails, Lane—on whom Perry is reportedly relying to rally evangelical voters to his candidacy—struck a different tone.
“We owe Dr. Jeffress a big thank you,” he wrote to Bott, adding that the media criticism that has called attention to the pastor’s comments was “a stroke of luck.”
Lane and Bott did not respond to multiple requests for comment by The Daily Beast.
The emails raise questions about whether Jeffress’s anti-Mormon rhetoric was a deliberate strategic move by the campaign, or simply the prerogative of an independent pastor expressing a widely held view among evangelical Christians.
Mark Miner, a spokesman for the Perry campaign, declined to answer questions about the nature of Lane’s relationship with the campaign. When The Daily Beast shared quotes from the emails, Miner responded, “Based on what you’ve provided this appears to be a private conversation that has nothing to do with our campaign.” According to the campaign’s most recent FEC report, Lane doesn’t appear to be on the candidate’s payroll.
But Lane’s involvement with Perry’s nomination efforts has been widely reported, and he is seen as the linchpin to the candidate’s outreach to evangelicals. In August, when the Texas governor held a large prayer rally for evangelical Christians shortly before entering the race, the Los Angeles Times reported that Lane was one of the masterminds behind the event. And a Religion News Services article listed Lane as one of several prominent evangelical figures who is “lin[ing] up behind Perry.”
Perhaps even more telling, Lane reportedly arranged a conference call last June for conservative Christian heavyweights that was designed to identify an ideal presidential candidate. The consensus was that if Perry entered the race, they would get behind him—a message that Lane, who has been organizing evangelical voters in key states ahead of 2012, took seriously. Lane’s influence in that community is well documented. Doug Wead, a leading historian of the Christian right, has described Lane as “the mysterious, behind the scenes, evangelical kingmaker who stormed into Iowa in 2008 and tilted the whole thing from Romney to Huckabee.”
Lane made clear in his emails that he has similar plans to derail Romney’s candidacy this time around. In fact, he told Bott that he would rather sit the race out than vote for a Mormon or President Obama.
“Let me go on the record, I won’t vote for Mitt Romney as Republican nominee in 2012.” He followed the statement with a link to a news article describing Romney’s various ecclesiastical positions in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He also cited Romney’s past positions advocating for abortion and gay rights before adding, “The Soul of America is at stake, where is the Church? Will a Gideon or Rahab the Harlot please stand?” (The last question refers to Biblical characters whom God called to save the Israelites in the Old Testament—an apparent plea for a candidate who will bring America in line with conservative Christian values.)
The emails refer to Lane strategizing with the Perry campaign to mobilize evangelical voters. In an earlier email to Bott that makes no mention of Romney specifically, Lane described a conversation he had with an unnamed “key Perry aide” in which he argued that “the creation of a clarion call to Evangelical pastors and pews is critical and from my perspective is the key to the Primary.”
He also told the aide that Perry needs to be praying and reading the Bible daily; “otherwise he has nothing to say” on the campaign trail. There is no mention in the emails of how the aide responded to this counsel, but the messages do indicate that Romney isn’t alone on Lane’s list of unacceptable nominees.
At the height of speculation that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would enter the presidential race, Lane wrote to Bott that “Christie is not a strong social conservative—says homosexuality not a sin, was for cap-n-trade, for civil unions and more.”
That email concluded, “If RP [Rick Perry] can sound the trumpet to Evangelicals, a spiritual call to war for the Soul of America, Christie is weak on our issues.”
The Romney campaign declined to comment for this article.