Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.
(CNN) -- The 2012 presidential race has been dominated by one issue: the economy. Americans are desperately looking for a leader who can steer the country into full recovery; anything else is peripheral at this point.
This past weekend, however, the presidential race was harmfully thrown off course.
I'm referring to the words of Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. Jeffress introduced Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the Values Voters Summit in Washington D.C. on Friday and strongly endorsed him, primarily because of his evangelical Christian beliefs.
Shortly after the introduction, Jeffress said to reporters: "Every true, born-again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian." Jeffress called Mormonism a "cult," and asked by a reporter if he believed Gov. Mitt Romney is a Christian, answered, "No." Romney, of course, is Mormon.
Jeffress' words echoed what he said in 2008 about Romney, when he told the Religion Newswriters Association at its annual meeting: "The value of electing a Christian goes beyond public policies ... It is worse to legitimize a faith that would lead people to a separation from God." In essence, Jeffress implied that voting for Mitt Romney would give credibility to a cult.
After hearing Jeffress' remarks, I decided to respond when I spoke at the same summit on Saturday. The Romney campaign contacted me before my speech about another speaker, Bryan Fischer, who has a history of controversial remarks concerning Mormonism. But Romney's campaign had no say in my words to Jeffress.
I said to Jeffress, along with everyone else, "Do not give voice to bigotry. Remember George Washington, his manly advice to us, to despise all forms of racial and religious bigotry. He who was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, counseled, 'We should give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.'
"Let's follow him. And I would say to Pastor Jeffress, you stepped on and obscured the words of Perry and Santorum and Cain and Bachmann and everyone else who has spoken here. You did Rick Perry no good, sir, in what you had to say."
I agree that there are serious theological differences between evangelical Christianity and Mormonism. But those should be settled in churches, in homes, and in religious gatherings, not in front of a national political event. Pastor Jeffress says his words were merely theological. He, pastor of a successful mega-church, should know full well the fine line between religion and politics. His words were clearly political, as evidenced by the damaging effect it had on the Republican presidential candidates and the national debate.
Gov. Perry immediately had to distance himself from Jeffress' words. Gov. Romney quickly went on the defensive. And the other candidates, instantly grilled by the national media about their view of Mormonism, were thrown into a controversy they wanted no part of. Jeffress' words were an inappropriate and deleterious distraction.
Article Six of the Constitution states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." The purpose of a political gathering like the Values Voters Summit is to build consensus around a candidate by examining positions and records. Yes, religion plays an essential role in those decisions, but one person's faith should never be a disqualifying factor, whether that person is Jewish, Christian, Catholic, Muslim, Mormon, or of any other faith.
To the right and left alike, we are in the middle of a grueling presidential campaign season. It behooves us to despise and reject all forms of religious, and racial, bigotry. Politics are about policy and deciding whether a candidate shares your views of the founding principles of this country -- life, liberty, and the rule of law -- which men and women of all different faiths can agree upon.
When Abraham Lincoln spoke in 1838 to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, concerning the "perpetuation of our political institutions," he admonished participants: "Let reverence for the laws ... become the political religion of the nation."
We do not need, nor should we have, a religious test for public office. Should we choose to hold someone's faith against him or her, we hurt only ourselves. Our chances of winning the 2012 presidential election depend on building the broadest coalition we can, not breaking it down.
I do not question the theological knowledge of Pastor Jeffress, and, to his credit, he has said that he would vote for Romney should he win the nomination. Nevertheless, his comments were ill-timed and of poor taste.
Again, the timeless wisdom of George Washington comes to mind. In a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, Washington wrote, "May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid."
The opinions in this commentary are solely those of William Bennett.