WASHINGTON, Dec 12 (Reuters Life!) - 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.”
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?”
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.
“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.”
In an appearance on Fox News Channel, Romney said he accepted the apology for what he said was a “traditional smear” on the Mormon faith.
“We really shouldn’t be attacking a person’s religion in this nation,” Romney added. “I think Americans are going to ultimately shy away from any effort to define candidates based on their faith.”
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