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Mitt Romney: proudly, quietly Mormon

The former governor of Massachusetts is a Mormon in full. But, facing a wary public, he has played his faith cautiously on the presidential campaign trail.

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One big tactical question hanging over the Romney campaign is whether the candidate should give a major speech that addresses his faith and how he would relate to his church's central leadership if elected. That is, should he follow in the footsteps of John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign, when he faced similar doubts about his Roman Catholic faith and delivered a groundbreaking address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Romney has read Kennedy's speech.

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In late July, Romney went from "maybe" to "more likely than not" on the speech question. But he cannot say when, and has yet to weigh pros and cons.

"I don't know that there's a lot of downside risk," he says. "The question is when's the right time…. So we'll let people think about it in my team, but it's not anything imminent."

The Mormon Church states that while it encourages members to vote and be active in politics, it does not try to direct or dictate to elected officials. When Romney's father, George, ran for president in 1968, his candidacy did not create the extended "Mormon moment" that Mitt's campaign has sparked, but George did feel compelled to assert his view to a group of non-Mormon ministers that the church should not become politically active, conservative talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt notes in his book, "A Mormon in the White House?"

Among outside political observers, many say that Mitt Romney should address the Mormon question head-on, and soon. Kennedy's speech came late in the game – fewer than two months before Election Day. But Romney's challenge comes in the primaries. Though he leads among Republican voters in Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire, the first three nominating contests, he is far behind in the next states, South Carolina and Florida.

Richard Land, head of public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention, calls the Kennedy speech "tone perfect," in the way that it appealed to "Americans' basic sense of fair play." Last October, at a gathering the governor held for religious conservative leaders at his home in Massachusetts, Mr. Land says he told Romney, "In my opinion, Governor, the Mormonism issue is not a deal-breaker, but only you can close the deal. Only John Kennedy could make millions of Americans feel comfortable with voting for a Catholic president. Only Mitt Romney can make millions of Americans feel comfortable voting for a Mormon president."

Romney himself raises the opposing view of Mr. Hewitt. "Romney's best strategy," Hewitt writes, "is to overwhelm any objections to him based on faith by demonstrating that he is simply the best-prepared, best-qualified candidate to run for, win, and then serve as president."

Ultimately, the decision may boil down to how Romney is doing on the eve of the primaries. If he's behind, he may decide he has nothing to lose. If he's competitive, and still delivers such a speech, the risk is that it reignites discussion about Mormonism – possibly adding to public unease about electing a Mormon president.

Duty to God

On the campaign's home page, a video called "The Decision" shows the big Romney family in heartfelt discussion over whether Dad should run for president. In the end, son Tagg concludes that his dad has no choice but to run, given his talents and good fortune. "I think you have a duty to your country and to God to see what comes of it," he says.

In his 20-minute Monitor interview, Mitt Romney was asked to explain how running for president fulfills a duty to God.

His reply: "If you come with a fundamental view that you are a child of God, and if you've been blessed in some way by being in this country, there is an obligation to serve if you find yourself in a unique position to make that service."

On questions of policy – such as his shift away from supporting abortion rights – Romney says he leaves the specifics of his faith at the office door. "I felt that in a secular position [as governor], my job was to [make] the considerations not from a religious standpoint but from a standpoint of a successful civilization," he says. "From that standpoint, I believe that a civilized society should respect the sanctity of life."

What about his brother-in-law's sister, who died from an illegal abortion in the 1960s? This family tragedy weighed on Romney's mother when she ran for the US Senate from Michigan in 1970 as an abortion-rights candidate.