CNN) — White House hopeful Mitt Romney on Thursday articulated his position on the role of religion in America, but avoided details about his personal faith.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said “freedom opens the windows of the soul.”
Romney, who hopes to become the first Mormon president, said “religious tolerance would be a shallow principle, indeed, if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.”
“There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution,” the former Massachusetts governor 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.”
CNN contributor Bill Bennett said he wasn’t sure Romney addressed the concerns voters might have with Mormonism, but, he added, “I don’t think he had to.”
“I can see this speech he just gave being given by any of the Republican candidates and most of the Democratic candidates, frankly. I’m not sure he was responding to the concern ‘what about this Mormon thing?’ ” Bennett said. “I think he will probably get more questions on it, not fewer.”
Another CNN contributor, Roland Martin, said the setting for the speech was a good one — “in the heart of the Bible Belt.”
Romney spoke at former President George H. W. Bush’s presidential library at Texas A&M University before a crowd of about 300 people: a combination of friends, family and religious and conservative leaders.
“What he is trying to say is ‘I am a person of faith. Forget the fact what my faith is, that I am a Mormon. You might be Christian. You might be Jewish. I’m a person of faith. I believe in God,’ ” Martin said.
Romney said religion is essential to freedom, without pointing to any specific faith.
“Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone,” the GOP contender said.
Romney, who had brushed off comparisons to John F. Kennedy’s famous address, didn’t hesitate to mention the 1960 speech.
“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.
“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.”
Kennedy took the stage in Houston, Texas, and addressed concerns that the Vatican would influence his policies.
Like Kennedy, Romney told the audience that his church would not influence his presidential decisions. Romney said he did not “confuse” religion and politics as governor and he would not do it as president.
“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,” he said.
Romney, however, said he would not distance himself from his religion.
“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,” he said, adding that if his faith hurts his candidacy, “so be it.”
Romney avoided explaining differences in his church’s beliefs and other faiths. Instead, he pointed to similarities between churches in America, saying they share a “common creed of moral convictions.”
Romney said he thought some have taken the idea of separation of church and state beyond its original meaning by trying to remove any acknowledgment of God from the public arena.
“It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism. They are wrong,” he said.
Nearly 77 percent of those questioned in an October CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll said the fact that a candidate is a Mormon would not be a factor in the way they vote for president. But a significant portion — 19 percent — said they are less likely to vote for a Mormon.
“Those who have the biggest problem supporting a Mormon are churchgoing and evangelical Christians — particularly those who believe that Mormonism is not a Christian religion,” CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider said, citing the October poll.
And that also represents a large portion of the Republican base.
Religion reporter Dick Ostling said Romney’s speech marks an important moment for Mormons.
“Historically, the church has been very vigorously persecuted,” Ostling told CNN. “And today they are becoming more normalized in the normal run of American life.”
Ostling said Romney is trying to make the case that although there are are a lot of differences between the Mormon church and Protestant and Catholic Christians, “we can unite behind these cultural, American moral values.”
Romney is trying to win over conservative Christians as rival Republican Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, makes gains in the polls.
The former Arkansas governor is touted in one of his television ads as the “Christian leader.”
“Understand, Mike Huckabee is rising because he is speaking to those social conservatives, these evangelicals. So Mitt Romney needs to identify with them saying, ‘You’re a person of faith, I’m a person of faith, let’s break bread together, and let’s agree to agree or agree to disagree,’ ” Martin said.
Evangelical Leader Applauds Religion Speech by Romney
COLLEGE STATION, Texas, Dec. 6 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Reverend Rob Schenck (pronounced SHANK), an Evangelical minister who is chair of the Committee on Church and Society for the Evangelical Church Alliance, America's oldest association of Evangelical clergy, as well as president of the National Clergy Council, a network of conservative church leaders, today applauded Mitt Romney's speech about the candidate's views on faith in the public square. Mr. Schenck was present in College Station, Texas, as Governor Romney addressed invited guests at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library. Mr. Schenck, who has announced he will not endorse a candidate, said about Mr. Romney's speech: "This was a courageous and historic act of leadership by Governor Romney. Evangelicals and Mormons will continue to have serious theological differences. In fact, I disagree strongly with some of the Governor's religious beliefs, but it's clear Mitt Romney does share with religious conservatives many of our deepest convictions on religious liberty, the critical importance of belief in God, the public role of faith, the sanctity of the traditional family and paramount moral issues. "This speech should go a long way to relieve worries about Governor Romney's particular religion and church membership. In fact, the Constitution strictly forbids a religious test for office, so those specifics should be off limits. "I believe Governor Romney's statement will help break down walls of suspicion like those that once kept Catholics and Evangelicals from working together. Morally conservative people should be allies, not adversaries. We need one another in the war against the dangerous advance of godless secularism in America. We should welcome similar commitments from all presidential candidates. With this speech Governor Romney has set a very high bar." Mr. Schenck is available for further comment. SOURCE National Clergy Council