Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said Thursday he would separate the affairs of government from any one religion if he is elected — but that does not mean keeping God out of government altogether.
Romney is seeking to become the first Mormon president. He delivered his speech on faith in America as polls show him losing ground to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is a Baptist minister.
The speech, in College Station, Texas, drew inevitable comparisons to former President John F. Kennedy's speech in nearby Houston, in which he famously said being Catholic should not disqualify him from the White House.
"Like him, I am an American running for president," Romney said. "I do not define my candidacy by my religion."
Romney also echoed Kennedy when he said he wouldn't take orders as president from any church leader.
"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 said.
Faith Has Place in Public Life
But unlike Kennedy, who said a president's religious views should be a private matter, Romney insisted faith should not be left out of politics altogether.
"In recent years, the notion of separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning," 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."
That message resonates with religious conservatives, an important Republican constituency.
But many Americans — especially evangelicals — are uncomfortable with the Mormon church. Romney sought to allay those concerns without going into detail about the particulars of Mormon doctrine.
"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," Romney said. "Any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me."
Romney's speech was well received by the audience of invited guests.
Speech Is Well Received
"I think there were some questions from Christians who weren't familiar with the Mormon faith who needed to hear that we are all in this together as Americans," said Yantis Green, a devout Catholic married to a Southern Baptist. "We're patriots first and that's the strength of this country."
Some people listened from Iowa where Romney has slipped in the polls behind Huckabee.
"Personally, the speech added a little bit to my comfort, okay. It didn't sway me one way or another," said Steve Carlson, a board member of the Iowa Christian Alliance.
Carlson said Romney is not his first choice as president, but he's not Carlson's last choice, either. "His family values, morals, and principles seem to be right in line with what us as evangelical Christians would aspire to," Carlson said.
Some in the Romney camp worried that a speech like this would only draw unwanted attention to the candidate's Mormon faith. But other religious leaders have been urging Romney to speak up.
One prominent Southern Baptist, Richard Land, said Americans are more comfortable now with religious expression in the public square than they were in Kennedy's day.
That notion seems borne out by Huckabee's late move up in the polls and the importance the Romney campaign attached to Thursday's speech.