SALT LAKE CITY — State Rep. Mike Kennedy said Monday he apologized on behalf of all Utahns to a pastor who Mitt Romney, his GOP U.S. Senate primary opponent, recently called a "religious bigot" for statements about the LDS Church and other faiths.
"Frankly, I reached out to him because I find it embarrassing that my opponent would label him as a religious bigot. I think the word bigot is almost a swear word, it's such a strong word," Kennedy told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards.
His phone call to Texas Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress, made on Friday, "was really positive. He sounds like a very decent fellow," Kennedy said. The Republican from Alpine said he made the apology "on behalf of what I perceive the state is."
Kennedy called a news conference last week to criticize Romney's May 13 tweet about Jeffress being selected by the Trump administration to give a prayer to open the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
He said he also called Jeffress because he wanted to make sure the pastor knew "the people of Utah" don't believe those "who are opposed to the Mormon faith are bigots."
Utahns, Kennedy said, "recognize we disagree. But there are so many things that unite us, that we should be willing to work together … instead of casting significantly inflammatory terms like bigots at those individuals."
The tweet from Romney quoted the pastor.
"Jeffress says 'you can't be saved by being a Jew,' and 'Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell.' He's said the same about Islam. Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United State Embassy in Jerusalem," Romney tweeted.
Romney's campaign had no comment Monday on Kennedy's apology.
On Fox News Sunday morning, Jeffress said many of the comments attributed to him were taken out of context but did not elaborate. He said "the bigger picture" was what he described as the Christian belief that there is only one way to heaven.
"People are free to disagree with Jesus and millions of them do," the pastor said. "But what people aren't free to do is to call me and hundreds of millions of Christians like me bigots for simply following the sayings of Jesus."
Jeffress then said he'd "had an interesting phone call from another prominent Mormon, Utah Dr. Mike Kennedy. … He called to apologize on behalf of the state of Utah for Mitt Romney's intemperate comments about me."
The move by Kennedy, widely seen as the underdog in the June 26 Republican primary despite beating Romney at the state GOP convention last month, perplexed BYU political science professor Chris Karpowitz.
"If you're running for office in the state of Utah, aligning yourself with a person who is well-known for being hostile to Mormonism is an odd political move," said Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
Karpowitz also said the suggestion that Kennedy was apologizing on behalf of the state was "bizarre," since it's not clear how many Utahns would side with Jeffress over Romney.
Kennedy's apology, Karpowitz said, actually serves to remind Utahns of why they overwhelmingly favored Romney as a presidential candidate in 2008 and as the GOP's nominee in 2012.
"Mitt Romney became extraordinarily popular in the state of Utah in part because he was seen as a target for religious criticism and he stood up for the decency of his beliefs," Karpowitz said.
Jeffress, who was among those attacking Romney's faith in the 2008 race, made headlines three years later for labeling the church a "cult" and stating then that Romney "is not a Christian."
Kennedy's apology may in part be an attempt to provoke Romney into a response, Karpowitz said, but this might be making an already challenging race even more difficult to win.
"Mike Kennedy has to change the dynamic in the race in some way," he said. "It's not surprising he would want to draw Romney out, but to choose to draw him out on this issue is curious."