Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney sought to allay voters' concerns about his Mormon faith Thursday, saying that, if elected, "I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest."
In a speech delivered at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas, Romney hoped to reassure the American public — and, in particular, the white evangelicals who have great influence in the Republican Party — about his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a religion that many Americans view as a cult.
As his wife and four of his five sons looked on from the audience, Romney addressed a fear that many evangelical Christians have voiced: He said his faith would shape his moral values, but he promised that his church would not dictate his policies.
"Let me assure you," Romney said, "that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin."
In this, Romney's address closely echoed the sentiment and the language of then-Sen. John F. Kennedy's historic address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960.
In that speech to skeptical evangelicals, Kennedy said, "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me."
Seeking to Reassure Evangelicals
Romney needs to win over conservative Protestants, like Kennedy did. For Romney, that means bringing around at least some of the 40 percent of white evangelical Protestants who hold an unfavorable view of the Mormon faith. His speech seemed to target that group, especially voters in Iowa.
Recently, Romney lost his lead in Iowa, where conservative Christians have increasingly turned toward Mike Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist pastor.
Michael Cromartie, an evangelical at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, says Romney achieved his basic goal: to reassure evangelicals that "he will tolerate their religious convictions, and that Salt Lake City will not be dictating policies at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" if Romney becomes president.
To evangelical organizations watching the speech, Cromartie says, Romney "came across as a pious, decent man who shares my social and moral values. I'm not afraid of him."
This was not the "moral values" address that many had expected, although Romney did mention perhaps the most appealing aspect of his persona to religious conservatives: His marriage of 38 years, and his loyal, photogenic five sons. (This is also his greatest advantage over his Republican rival Rudolph Giuliani, who is on his third marriage.)
But Romney made no mention of hot-button evangelical issues, such as abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research. Instead, he emphasized shared religious values.
The question to ask "a person of faith" running for office, Romney said, is, "Does he share these American values: the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty? They are not unique to any one denomination. They are the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united."
Shaun Casey, an expert on religion and politics at Wesley Theological Seminary, called this emphasis a weakness in Romney's address.
"This was a generic religious freedom speech, and it could have been given by any number of politicians," Casey says. "But that's not the problem he faces. It's not what he needed to do. I don't think it will comfort the red-meat types in the Republican Party."
Avoiding Specifics on Mormon Beliefs
Romney was not expected to drill down deeply into his Mormon theology, which most Christians consider to be non-Christian. In fact, evangelicals consider Mormonism to be a cult, because it states that the Book of Mormon is a new revelation from God, complementary to the Bible.
If Romney had detailed Mormon beliefs on the role of Jesus Christ, the Trinity and the afterlife, for example, that might have caused more alarm than confidence among Christians, because there are significant differences in how Mormons view those central doctrines. As predicted, Romney offered only the barest exposition of his faith.
"I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind," he said. "My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism, but rather a test of our tolerance."
Forcing him to explain his church's distinctive doctrines, he said, "would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution."
"No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith," he said, drawing large applause as he concluded, "for if he becomes president, he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths."
Cromartie says that brief declaration of faith should satisfy evangelicals.
Romney "didn't need to talk about substitutionary atonement or the second person of the Trinity," he says, referring to details of religious doctrine. "He just needs to convince potential Huckabee voters that his religious views will never impinge on their religious life."
Relaxing Separation of Church and State?
However, unlike Kennedy, who praised "an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," Romney seemed to suggest that this separation has gone too far.
"They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God," Romney said. "Religion is seen as merely a private affair, with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism. They are wrong," he concluded to vigorous applause.
In a statement that may end up alienating those who believe in a strict separation of church and state, or those who have no religious beliefs at all, Romney added, "Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom."
In what was surely a finger in the eye of the ACLU, Romney said that during this holiday season, "nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places."
"Romney is wrong when he says we are in danger of taking separation too far or at risk of establishing a religion of secularism," Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said in a statement.
"I was particularly outraged that Romney thinks that the Constitution is somehow based on faith, and that judges should rule accordingly. That's a gross misunderstanding of the framework of our constitutional system."