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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

ALEX COHEN, host:

I'm Alex Cohen.

This morning Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made what may be the most important speech of his campaign. His topic? Religious faith. The governor is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church.

CHADWICK: And that troubles at least some of those among a very important voter group, evangelical Christians. Analysts say that is what is behind the surging fortunes of Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister and the former governor of Arkansas.

COHEN: Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, spoke at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas. He tried to reassure voters who questioned whether his religious beliefs would affect his policy decisions.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Democratic Governor, Massachusetts): When I placed my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God. If I'm 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.

CHADWICK: Governor Romney mentioned his religion, but he did not talk about it in any detail. Rather, he spoke about, quote, "great moral principles that urge us all on a common course." He said it would be inappropriate for him to defend the specific doctrines of his church. That, he said, would amount to a religious test forbidden by the Constitution.

Mr. ROMNEY: 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

COHEN: He also reached out to evangelicals, saying he's an ally of anyone who has knelt in prayer.

Mr. ROMNEY: We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate that the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgement of God.

COHEN: Joining us now to discuss today's speech is Michael Paulson. He's a religion reporter for the Boston Globe.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL PAULSON (Boston Globe): Thank you.

COHEN: Mr. Paulson, you have been covering Mitt Romney for years now. What was most striking to you about today's speech?

Mr. PAULSON: What I heard was really a plea to Americans to remember this country's commitment to the importance of religious freedom and the value of diversity of faith in America. I also heard a clear, albeit brief, but a clear assertion of his own Mormon faith and a direct statement that he would not take orders from any religious authority, meaning the Mormon church's leadership in Salt Lake City.

The other thing, though, that I think was striking was that I also heard a critique of the separation of church and state in America, an assertion that perhaps it has gone too far, and even a plea for greater display of cresses and menorahs in public spaces.

COHEN: One of the things that I was fascinated by in watching - I watched the speech this morning on CNN, and he mentioned initially just his faith, not his Mormon faith. And all of a sudden there's this big graphic that comes up that are all about the Mormon church. What does it say to you that the word Mormon was only mentioned in the speech once?

Mr. PAULSON: Well, I think because he's a member of a faith that is such a minority in this country and that is viewed with so much suspicion by so many, what he was trying to do was to connect his own values, which are shaped by his faith, to the values of other Americans who have other faiths. He used a phrase our common moral inheritance, which I had not heard him use before. And he was clearly trying to suggest that the beliefs that he has are similar to those of other Americans, even if there are a lot of differences in the particulars of his theology.

COHEN: A lot of polls have indicated that some Americans might be reluctant to vote for a Mormon. Do you think today's speech might have changed their minds at all?

Mr. PAULSON: Well, I think like John F. Kennedy's speech in 1960, Romney today was trying to encourage people to remind themselves that our country is founded on a notion of religious freedom and tolerance for a diversity of religious expression. He's reminding people, or pleading with them, not to judge him based on the particulars of his theology but rather to understand that they don't have to agree with every element of his religious faith to weigh his pros and cons as a presidential candidate.

COHEN: You wrote a piece for the Globe and you spoke with a number of Mormons there in the Boston area, and a lot of them expressed hope that maybe Mitt Romney could help explain some things about their faith and clear up some of the misunderstandings. But it seems to me, at least, he didn't explain a whole lot today. How do you think Mormons there in Massachusetts might react to this speech?

Mr. PAULSON: Yeah, you know, he said very specifically that he was not going to be the person who was going to explain the particulars of Mormon faith. And in the past he has said sort of fliply that anyone who has questions about Mormonism can go to the church's Web site.

You know, for Mormonism in America this campaign is a huge moment, although he's not the first Mormon to run for president. He's the strongest contender to come out of the Mormon church, and it's engendered a huge amount of conversation about Mormonism.

So I think rank-and-file Mormons are hoping that this campaign, this speech, are going to help the religion move toward the mainstream and answer some of the kind of stereotypes that people have about Mormons. Romney, of course, doesn't think it's in his interest to get into that kind of detail. And he shied away completely from that today.

COHEN: As you've mentioned, there has been a lot of comparison between today's speech and the speech that John F. Kennedy gave in 1960 when there were questions about his faith as a Catholic and a candidate.

Let's listen to some of that speech.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president - should he be Catholic - how to act.

COHEN: You've covered Mr. Romney for many years now. Based on his performance as governor of Massachusetts, where do you think he stands in terms of this separation of church and state?

Mr. PAULSON: I think most people who have watched Romney in office would say that there is no evidence, there's never been any suggestion that he was getting calls from Salt Lake telling him what to do.

Now, does Mormonism affect the way he acts as a policymaker? Of course it does. I mean he is a sixth generation Mormon deeply steeped in this church, and his values, the way he looks at the culture, the way he looks at public policy matters, are influenced by his heritage and his beliefs just as any other candidate's are. But was he taking orders from elsewhere? There's no indication of that.

COHEN: Michael Paulson is a religion reporter for the Boston Globe. Thank you so much.

Mr. PAULSON: Thank you.

COHEN: You can hear Mitt Romney's speech and see a video of John F. Kennedy's speech from 1960. Go to our Web site. That's npr.org.

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