Huckabee questions tenet of Romney's Mormon faith

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said he considers his rival Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith a religion, not a cult, but questioned whether Mormons believe “Jesus and the devil are brothers.”

U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee speaks at a forum on health care at Des Moines University in Des Moines, Iowa, December 12, 2007. REUTERS/Keith Bedford

Huckabee raised the question on his own in an interview to appear in The New York Times magazine on Sunday, and ignited a new flap in the up-for-grabs race to be the Republican Party’s nominee in the November 2008 presidential election.

Huckabee was asked if he considered Mormonism a cult or a religion. “I think it’s a religion,” he said in the interview, published on the newspaper’s Web site on Wednesday. “I really don’t know much about it.”

Then he asked: “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

Romney, who has tried to dispel conservative Christians’ worries about the Mormon faith, responded on NBC’s “Today” show on Wednesday.

“I think attacking someone’s religion is really going too far. It’s just not the American way. and I think people will reject that,” the former Massachusetts governor said.

“That’s been something that’s been leveled at our church over many many years and of course that’s been set straight now,” he added.

Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor, has surged in public opinion polls and is now ahead of Romney in polls in Iowa, which holds its caucus, the first test of the U.S. state-by-state nominating season, on Jan 3.

Romney responded with a sharp attack on Huckabee’s positions on issues such as immigration and taxing and spending. “I think Mike was desperately hoping we would get through this without people taking a close look at his positions and his record,” he said.

After a debate in Iowa on Wednesday, Huckabee apologized for the comment, made before Romney gave a major speech last week trying to dispel fears about his church, known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, particularly among conservative Christians, a key voting bloc.

“After the debate today I went to Mitt Romney and apologized to him, because I said, I would never try, ever, to try to somehow pick out some point of your faith and make it, you know, an issue,” he said on CNN.

He added the comment was taken out of context during a long conversation with the Times reporter. “I asked the question, because I had heard that, and I asked it not to create something. I never thought it would make the story.”

Religious scholars said under Mormonism all of God’s children are brothers and sisters, including Jesus and Satan, but Satan would be considered a disinherited member of God’s family who was cast out of God’s presence for eternity.

“Spiritually, all God’s children are brothers and sisters, so Huckabee would also be the brother of Satan,” said Francis Beckwith, who teaches a course on politics and religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

“The way it was expressed by Huckabee is a crude way of putting something that is more complicated than that,” he said. “It would be like saying under Catholicism they eat Jesus’ flesh. It’s a sensationalist way of presenting it.”

Additional reporting by Jason Szep. editing by Todd Eastham