By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 7, 2007
COLLEGE STATION, Tex., Dec. 6 -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, seeking to allay suspicions about his Mormon faith, pledged Thursday to serve the common good rather than a single religion if elected president.
"Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions," Romney told an audience at George H.W. Bush's presidential library. "Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin."
The former Massachusetts governor, in a long-awaited speech that could be crucial to his hopes of winning the GOP nomination and the White House, went on to say that, as president, he would serve "no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest." He continued: "A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States."
But Romney was equally emphatic in arguing that religion has a place in public life. Saying that the doctrine of separation of church and state has been carried too far, he said some people and institutions have pushed to remove "any acknowledgment of God" from the public domain. "It's as if they're intent on establishing a new religion in America -- the religion of secularism," he said. "They're wrong."
Romney's address, which was widely compared to one that John F. Kennedy gave in Houston in 1960 as he was seeking to become the first Roman Catholic president, was the most important of his political career and came at a potential turning point in the wide-open Republican nomination battle. Romney has sought to cast himself as a committed conservative, but many polls have shown resistance, particularly among evangelical Christians, to a Mormon candidate.
Romney has counted on victories in Iowa and New Hampshire to launch a candidacy that has sometimes struggled for national recognition. But in Iowa he now faces growing competition for the votes of Christian conservatives from former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister who has made his religious faith central to his candidacy.
As a result, Romney's challenge here Thursday was different from Kennedy's in 1960, and so was his speech. Like Kennedy, he sought to neutralize concerns that his church would in some way dictate his decisions as president. But unlike Kennedy, he needed to assure Christian conservatives that he shares their fundamental convictions and a determination not to see religion's role in political life reduced.
The setting, the Bush library on the campus of Texas A&M University, conveyed a presidential aura to an event that was long debated inside the Romney campaign. Signifying the speech's significance, the candidate was accompanied by his wife, Ann, and four of their sons.
Former president George H.W. Bush introduced Romney, and while he said he was not endorsing any candidate in the GOP race, he spoke warmly about Romney and his family.
The audience included several prominent religious leaders, including Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice; and the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition. Their immediate reactions were positive, with Land, speaking on CNN, saying Romney had done "a magnificent job."
"His delivery was passionate and his message was inspirational," Focus on the Family founder James Dobson said in a statement. "Whether it will answer all the questions and concerns of Evangelical Christian voters is yet to be determined, but the governor is to be commended for articulating the importance of our religious heritage as it relates to today."
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said Romney's remarks "were well-delivered and he offered many compelling thoughts," but like Dobson he warned that it "would be an illusion to think that any single speech could assuage every concern or end the thriving discussions Americans have about these issues."
Romney will not know whether he succeeded in addressing those concerns until the first results come in on Jan. 3 in Iowa, where religious conservatives play a substantial role in the GOP caucuses. A more critical test for Romney will come Jan. 19 in South Carolina's GOP primary, as Southern evangelicals have been seen as most resistant to his Mormon beliefs.
To those Christians, Romney offered a statement of his beliefs: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind." But he declined to attempt to demystify the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as some had suggested he might have to do.
"There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines," he said. "To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. 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."
Romney, like Kennedy, said there should be no religious test for the presidency. "A person should not be elected because of his faith, nor should he be rejected because of his faith," he said.
But he also explicitly declined to distance himself from his church. "I believe in my Mormon faith, and I endeavor to live by it," he said. Should he lose because of that, "so be it," he said, adding that he believes the American people prefer politicians who are true to their faith rather than "believers of convenience."
One GOP strategist called that an unfortunate choice of words, given the charges that Romney changed his views on abortion and some other issues, adopting more conservative positions in preparation for his presidential campaign. "It lies at the core of why some Republicans and conservatives have doubts about Romney," said this strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment of the speech.
Romney underscored repeatedly the religious heritage that he said was at the heart of the Founding Fathers' vision of the new country. He called for continued public acknowledgment of "the Creator" on currency and in the Pledge of Allegiance, and said nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in public places.
He said Americans should focus on their shared moral values rather than the denominational differences that sometimes divide the country. "Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself," Romney said, "no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people."