In an echo of John F. Kennedy's election-eve address on Catholicism 47 years ago, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney sought to allay concerns Thursday over his Mormon faith before an audience of invited guests at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.
Without delving into the specifics of Mormon doctrine, Mr. Romney invoked the Founding Fathers in asserting the nation's religious underpinnings, called for religious tolerance, and highlighted the "common creed of moral convictions" within the varied theologies of American churches.
And, just as the future President Kennedy promised in 1960 that he would not accept instruction from the pope, Romney promised that as president he would answer to "no one religion."
"When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God," Romney said. "If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States."
Romney also referenced Article 6 of the Constitution, which states that "no religious test" shall ever be required as a qualification for office.
"There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines," Romney said. "To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths."
The speech comes after months of debate within the Romney campaign over the wisdom of such a move. The Republican candidate has faced persistent reservations by a significant portion of the GOP electorate to voting for a Mormon for president.
He had hoped not to have to deliver such a speech, but decided last week that he should. Romney would have preferred to let his success in business and government, and in turning around the 2002 Olympics, in addition to his picture-perfect family, speak for itself. By waiting until this point in the campaign – less than a month before the first nominating contest, the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses – he is guaranteed major public attention to his address. But if it backfires, by making Mormonism an even bigger issue, he could damage his political prospects.
Analysts widely assume that the Romney campaign's internal polls indicate that voter resistance to Mormonism was hurting his bid for the GOP nomination, particularly in Iowa, where Evangelicals make up a significant portion of the Republican base. Romney has staked his nomination bid on winning the crucial early contests, first Iowa, then New Hampshire, and has campaigned heavily in both states. For months, polls of likely caucusgoers in Iowa showed Romney winning in Iowa, but in recent weeks, a surge in support for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee – an ordained Baptist preacher and an Evangelical – has left the race in a dead heat. Romney remains ahead in New Hampshire, which has a small Evangelical population.
Romney has faced questions about his Mormon faith almost from the moment he entered the 2008 presidential race last January. Some major religious groups in America, such as the Southern Baptists, do not consider Mormons to be Christian, because they do not hold to their view of the Holy Trinity and because they have scriptures separate from the Bible, such as the Book of Mormon. During the campaign, some Evangelicals have objected to Romney's use of Christian terminology, such as when Romney refers to Jesus Christ as "my savior" or "the savior of the world."
Mormons reject that argument, noting that the full name of their church – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – contains the words "Jesus Christ" for a reason.
"Christ is the center of our theology," says Michael Otterson, spokesman for the church, based in Salt Lake City. "We believe him to be the son of God [and] the redeemer of mankind. We believe he atoned for the sins of all mankind."
On the campaign trail, Romney has shown some exasperation at the persistence of the public – and the press – in questioning him about his Mormon faith, and whether he will give a speech addressing the concern. Polling has long shown the challenge Romney faces as the first Mormon presidential candidate with a genuine shot at winning a major-party nomination.
According to a Pew Research Center survey taken in August, 25 percent of GOP voters nationwide say they are "less likely" to vote for a candidate who is Mormon. The issue of Romney's faith is ironic, particularly in this religion-infused campaign. While some candidates regularly use religious language on the stump, the deeply religious Romney has avoided it, preferring instead to speak of values.
In Romney's sole reference to his Mormon faith in the speech, he addressed critics who he said "would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts."
"That I will not do," he continued. "I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers – I will be true to them and to my beliefs."
The reference to Romney's forefathers was laden with meaning. Romney is descended from a long line of Mormons, going back to the early days of the church in the 1830s.
Romney's father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, ran for president in 1968, but dropped out after a verbal gaffe sank his prospects. Still, Mormonism was not an issue in the senior Romney's campaign. Some historians say that in effect, the Kennedy speech a few years earlier had protected Romney from undergoing scrutiny over his faith. In addition, religion was not the major stump issue it is today. And in the 1960s, the Mormon church was much smaller than it is today.
The rapid growth of the Mormon church, with 5 million members in the US and some 13 million worldwide, is cited as a cause of concern for Evangelicals. Both faiths actively seek to convert one another's members, and some Evangelicals have expressed concern that having a Mormon president would aid in the growth of Mormon membership rolls.
Before Thursday's speech, delivered at the library of former President Bush on the campus of Texas A & M University, Romney was introduced by the former president. Mr. Bush made clear that he was not endorsing Romney's campaign, and had made his library available to other presidential candidates. The audience of 300 included Romney family, friends, and advisers, guests of the library, and guests of the former president. One notable attendee was Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention and an influential evangelical leader. He has not endorsed Romney, but has been supportive of his candidacy.