Mitt Romney makes case to conservatives for support
"Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president," Romney said, referring to John F. Kennedy's famous speech. "Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.
"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. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin."
The speech at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library came as Mike Huckabee, a dark horse GOP candidate just weeks ago, has surged in the polls and threatens to win the votes of the same social conservative evangelicals Romney is courting. Of the five most recent polls in Iowa -- which votes first on Jan. 3 -- Huckabee leads in three, Romney in two. Additionally, Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, was leading among Republicans in two new South Carolina polls released Dec. 6 and was in second place nationally behind Rudy Giuliani in a Dec. 4 Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, does not endorse candidates but was in attendance for the speech at the invitation of Romney. Land said he believes Mormonism falls outside the boundaries of orthodox Christianity but that Romney addressed evangelicals' main concerns.
"I'm one of those evangelicals who do not believe that Mormonism is an orthodox with a small 'o,' Trinitarian with a capital 'T' faith," Land said on CNN. "... And the fact that a person is a Mormon should not disqualify them from running for public office. We have a constitutional prohibition against a religious test for office and, after all, we are voting for a commander-in-chief, not a pastor-in-chief."
Land added that "to the extent" that Romney needed to address his Mormon beliefs, "he addressed them." It was Land that in late 2006 suggested to Romney that he give such a speech.
"About a dozen evangelical leaders met with him in his home, and he said, 'OK, what do I need to hear?'" Land said of the meeting, which also was at Romney's invitation. "And I said, 'Well, governor, I think that your Mormon faith is not an absolute deal-breaker with evangelicals, but you've got to close the deal. Only Kennedy could convince enough Protestants to vote for a Catholic, and only you can convince evangelicals to vote for a Mormon.' And so I encouraged him to give this kind of a speech. I even gave him a copy of the Kennedy speech. And I said, you know, in your words, you need to do this kind of a speech. And so I am glad that he's done it. I do think it’s more important for the country even than it is for Gov. Romney to be reminded in this kind of a high-profile speech about our rich heritage of religious freedom and religious pluralism and diversity."
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson applauded the speech.
"Gov. Romney’s speech was a magnificent reminder of the role religious faith must play in government and public policy," Dobson said in a statement. "His delivery was passionate and his message was inspirational. 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."
During his speech Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, referenced the nation's founders and argued that if elected president he would serve "no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest" but only serve "the common cause of the people of the United States."
"There are some for whom these commitments are not enough," he said. "They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers. I will be true to them and to my beliefs."
Some people, Romney said, believe that his ties to his religion "will sink my candidacy."
"If they are right, so be it," he said. "But I think they underestimate the American people. Americans do not respect believers of convenience. Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world."
Romney said he would not address the "distinctive doctrines" of his religion, nor should other candidates be required to do that.
"To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution," he said. "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 said he believes "every faith" he has encountered "draws its adherents closer to God."
"And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love that profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews -- unchanged through the ages -- and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims. As I travel across the country and see our towns and cities, I am always moved by the many houses of worship with their steeples, all pointing to heaven, reminding us of the source of life's blessings."
Even though churches have "differences in theology," Romney said, they "share a common creed of moral convictions."
"Whether it was the cause of abolition or civil rights or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people," he said.
Religion, he added, must not be stripped from the public square. The separation of church and state, he said, has been redefined "well beyond its original meaning" -- so far, in fact, that it is as if some are wanting to establish "the religion of secularism."
"The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square," Romney said. "We are a nation 'Under God' and, in God, we do indeed trust. We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders -– in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places."
It has been the "diversity" of America's "cultural expressions" and the "vibrancy" of its "religious dialogue" that has kept the nation at the forefront of civilized nations even as "others regard freedom as something to be destroyed."
"[Y]ou can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me," he said. "And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: We do not insist on a single strain of religion. Rather, we welcome our nation's symphony of faith."
Romney still holds a double-digit lead in New Hampshire, which votes Jan. 8 and where Huckabee is in third or fourth place, but Romney is battling with Huckabee in at least a few other states. South Carolina, the first state in the South to vote, has seen Huckabee take the lead in two new polls. The former Arkansas governor has 23 percent to Giuliani's and Fred Thompson's 17 percent in an Insider Advantage poll of 670 likely voters while Romney has 14 percent. A Rasmussen Reports poll of 654 likely voters has Huckabee at 25 percent and Romney and Thompson tied at 18 percent. South Carolina's GOP primary is Jan. 19.
The aforementioned L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll of 428 likely GOP voters has Giuliani in front at 23 percent followed by Huckabee (17 percent), Thompson (14), John McCain (11) and Romney (9).
Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press.