Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney will tackle the sensitive subject of faith on Thursday, discussing the tradition of religious tolerance in America and how his own Mormonism would guide him if elected.
The speech, in College Station, Texas, comes at a time when some polls show Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee—a Baptist minister—pulling ahead of Romney in Iowa, where evangelicals are an important voting block.
Until now, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has steered clear of detailed discussions of his faith, brushing aside questions about the particulars of Mormon theology.
"Just go on, whatever it is, Mormon Church or LDS Church.com and they can tell you everything you want to know," he told one young man during a town hall meeting in California.
Instead, Romney has focused on the values his faith shares with others in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
"We believe all the people of the world are one family, are the children of the same creator. We believe in the sanctity of human life. We believe in the importance of marriage and the foundational nature of family," Romney said.
Some of Romney's advisors urged him to leave it at that, fearing a big speech on faith would simply draw unwanted attention to his membership in a church that more than a quarter of Americans view unfavorably, and some evangelicals consider a cult.
But last week, Romney decided to confront those concerns head on with a speech entitled "Faith in America."
"It's almost as if you could hear someone saying, 'we can't afford to get swiftboated on your religion," said USC political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "You've got to get out there. You've got to explain who you are. That's what Kennedy did and it became a positive for him."
John F. Kennedy's famous speech in 1960, in which he said being Catholic shouldn't keep him from the White House, is now the standard text on religious tolerance. But even though Romney is speaking just 100 miles from where Kennedy did, he says his talk won't be a repeat. Kennedy's message was essentially secular. He said the separation of church and state in America should be absolute.
"I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition of holding that office," Kennedy told a gathering of ministers in Houston.
That idea of setting religion aside doesn't fly in today's Republican party. And Romney doesn't want it to.
"The effort to establish an anti-religion in America, the anti-religion of secularism, has got to come to an end," Romney said at the Values Voters Summit in October. "We are a nation under God. And we do place our trust in Him."
Far from trying to swim against the tide of religion in Republican politics—like Rudy Giuliani—Romney is hoping to ride the wave. "What Romney's trying to say is, 'I'm a Mormon, I'm religious. I hate the secular people too. Let me in,'" said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.
Some evangelicals are willing to open the door. Mark DeMoss, a member of Romney's faith and values steering committee, said he is more interested in the candidate's values than his theology. And he is urging his fellow Southern Baptists to apply the same standard.
"We're not talking about a mystery Mormon or a hypothetical Mormon or a generic Mormon. We're talking about this Mormon, Mitt Romney," DeMoss said. "He has a name and a life and a record and a history and experience we can look at and evaluate. And that's what we should evaluate."
Romney is likely to stress that record. But by campaigning on a platform of religious values, Romney has invited more scrutiny of his own religion than either Kennedy or Romney's politician father faced a generation ago.