Should Rick Perry Dump Robert Jeffress? Catholic League Calls on the Republican to Cut Ties

The head of the Catholic League is calling on Republican Rick Perry to cut ties with controversial pastor Robert Jeffress—but not for the reason you might think. Wayne Barrett reports exclusively. 

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William Donohue, the head of the Catholic League, called on presidential candidate Rick Perry on Wednesday to “have a full break” with Pastor Robert Jeffress, the Dallas minister who introduced and endorsed Texas's governor at the Values Voter Summit last week, and—in case you’ve forgotten—called Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith a “cult” in the process.

Donohue told The Daily Beast that Jeffress’ description of Mormonism “bespeaks dramatic ignorance”—but that he was calling for Perry to sever ties “not only for the pastor’s comments on Mormonism,” but because of the anti-Catholic statements the megachurch pastor made on his Pathway to Victory ministry show last September. On that show, Jeffress likened the Catholic Church to Satan, and called it a “fake religion.”

A powerful Catholic voice based in the New York Archdiocese, Donohue’s denunciations of another controversial Texas evangelical—Pastor John Hagee—as an anti-Catholic bigot forced 2008 GOP nominee John McCain to reject Hagee’s endorsement. (Hagee had called the church “the great whore” and a “false cult.”) “I think Rick Perry should follow the lead of McCain,” Donohue said in an interview on Wednesday, “and say ‘I don’t want this guy Jeffress’ endorsement.’” Donohue later reconciled with Hagee, who Donohue says came to visit him and apologized for the comments.

Donohue tells The Daily Beast he doesn’t think Jeffress is likely to recant his comments on Catholicism. Jeffress, says Donohue, is “in too deep,” and “loves to go on TV” making these “despicable statements.” Donohue is so respected in evangelical circles that he recently participated in an extended discussion in Washington put together by Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council, the sponsor of last week’s Values Voter Summit. One of the only Catholics present, Donohue and 15 to 20 evangelical leaders discussed social policy issues extensively right before the event. He says: “I didn’t hear anything off the wall there,” though he certainly sensed that some in the group “were leaning toward Perry.”

“Now I find out that Satan infected Catholicism,” Donohue added, a reference to the pivotal role Perkins asked Jeffress to play at the summit and Jeffress’ prior Catholic attacks. Jeffress called Catholicism “a Babylonian mystery religion spread like a cult” and suggested that it was “the genius of Satan” to make this “counterfeit” religion look like real Christian faiths.

Donohue posted a brief statement on the League site today branding Jeffress a “poster boy for hatred, not Christianity.” But he did not say anything about Perry until contacted by The Daily Beast.

Reached via email on Thursday after this story was published, Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for the Perry campaign, said: "Governor Perry does not believe Mormonism is a cult and is not going to be distracted from talking about the issues that truly matter to America, like creating jobs."

Research assistance was provided by Emily Atkin, Matthew DeLuca, Kelly Knaub, Fausto Giovanny Pinto, and Andy Ross.