Romney Seeks to Put the Mormon Question to Rest

Addressing his views on faith in a much-publicized address Thursday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney — a Mormon — chose his words with care. How did evangelicals and others react to the speech?

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One day after Mitt Romney's speech on faith, the other Republican presidential candidates are checking the political landscape for changes. Romney's Mormon religion had seemed to be a political liability. He'd lost ground in Iowa and struggled in South Carolina, where many evangelical voters are suspicious of Mormons.

NPR's Howard Berkes considers what Romney did and did not say about his Mormon faith.

HOWARD BERKES: Mitt Romney spoke more than 2500 words but used the term Mormon just once.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it.

BERKES: And Romney mentioned just one overtly religious belief.

Mr. ROMNEY: I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind.

BERKES: This is the fundamental link between all Christian faiths. And Romney said it because many evangelicals don't consider him and other Mormons true Christians. Then he said this...

Mr. ROMNEY: My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. These are not bases for criticism, but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.

BERKES: Sitting in the audience in Texas and marveling at Romney's words was Richard Land, an evangelical who speaks for the Southern Baptist Convention.

Mr. RICHARD LAND (Southern Baptist Convention): Clearly, he is opening the door there for evangelicals to understand him as saying I'm not claiming to be a Christian the way you believe in Christ.

BERKES: And that approach, Land says, should help Romney with evangelicals.

Mr. LAND: I think a lot of evangelicals would be prepared to vote for a person who was a Mormon that they agree with on the issues unless that Mormon kept insisting that he was a Christian just like them. That's picking a fight he doesn't need to pick, and it's a fight he can't win.

BERKES: Romney never mentioned the theological differences that lie just beneath the surface, including how Christ is actually viewed by Mormons and how the Book of Mormon supplements the Bible.

And that was obvious to another evangelical watching the speech on TV 600 miles away. Phil Roberts is president of the Midwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City.

Mr. PHIL ROBERTS (President, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary): The basic Mormon tactic is we'll stay simple, we'll use the same expressions, and it gives and lends the impression of a similar if not the same belief system.

BERKES: If this was Mitt Romney's tactic, Roberts says, it's bound to backfire.

Mr. ROBERTS: People now will be asking themselves the question, well, what does he really believe? He didn't articulate it fully. Let's see if we can find out.

BERKES: Evangelicals aren't the only Americans suspicious of Romney and his faith. A series of public opinion polls found a quarter of those surveyed and more reluctant to vote for a Mormon candidate. Romney may have targeted them when he said this...

Mr. ROMNEY: No authorities of my church will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.

BERKES: While drawing this line between church and state, Romney also invited faith into the White House. He said his religious values will inform his decisions as president, and he said religious displays on public property are appropriate. This is another fine line, notes Kathleen Flake, a Mormon historian at Vanderbilt University.

Professor KATHLEEN FLAKE (Vanderbilt University): He had to assure the public at large that he wasn't a demagogue, that he wasn't a fanatic, that he wasn't a cult member, and at the same time assure people of the far right that he wasn't going to abandon their need that religion be in the public square.

BERKES: Flake adds that the speech won't end the religious questions for Mitt Romney, if he survives the primaries and caucuses. She expects voters with no religious affiliation to challenge Romney because of his mixture of faith and state.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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