Standing before a crowd of several hundred and a television audience of millions, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said that in a nation with religious freedom, his Mormon faith should not be the sole reason keeping him from the presidency.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, addressed the public's concerns with his faith in what political observers labeled the most important speech of his political career on Thursday at the George Bush Presidential Library.
With many family members and former President George H.W. Bush present, Romney said the public should question the faith of its leaders in a religious nation, but it should not be the only factor when electing them.
"Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom," Romney said. "Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religious endure together, or perish alone."
As the first Mormon running for president, many in the public have expressed concerns with his faith, as some tenets of Mormon are considered to be outside the mainstream. An aide to Romney told reporters prior to the speech that the candidate understood the address was necessary, even before he started his campaign.
"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 said. "Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin."
The basis of Mormonism, he said, is the same as other Christian faiths -- but, like every other Christian faith, differences exist. "There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked: What do I believe about Jesus Christ?" he said. "I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind."
Because of his beliefs, Romney said, he has an understanding about why religious freedom, while maintaining faith, is crucial.
"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."
The speech alluded to a similar speech made by the Democratic presidential nominee in the 1960 election. Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., was a Catholic and many voters thought that his faith would create an allegiance to the pope. On Sept. 12, 1960, he spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, where he attempted to dispel the notion that the Vatican would steward his administration.
"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, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote -- where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference -- and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who elect him," Kennedy said.
In this election, Romney said, he is in the position Kennedy was in; trying to explain that he's running as an American, not as a member of a specific faith.
"Almost 50 years ago, another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president," he said. "Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion."
Romney's speech came less than a month before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, where he was a longtime front-runner. He has lost his lead however, to Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist preacher. In Iowa, Huckabee has 26 percent support to Romney's 25 percent, according to the latest Zogby polls.
In addition, a study conducted by Vanderbilt University showed that bias against Mormons in the U.S. is higher than blacks and women. Researchers found the bias was even stronger among evangelical Christians.
"Depending upon how the speech is designed, it could stir latent bias by activating certain interests of the voting public," said John Greer, distinguished professor of political science at Vanderbilt, who led the survey. "However, those who are biased against Mormons are not necessary hardened in their positions."
Responding to the criticisms of his faith, Romney said his faith is important to him -- not to his political leadership -- and voters should not cast their ballot for or against him just because of that.
"A person should not be elected because of his faith nor rejected because of his faith," he said.
© 2007 The Battalion via U-WIRE