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Mitt Romney to Address Faith and Public Office


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gives a speech today on the tradition of religious tolerance in America. He is expected to talk about how his own Mormon faith would inform his presidency if he's elected. Some polls show Mike Huckabee, who's a Baptist minister, pulling ahead of Romney in Iowa where evangelical Christians are an important voting bloc.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports from College Station, Texas.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Mitt Romney's ties to the Mormon Church stretch back five generations. His great grandfather was among the Mormon pioneers who helped Brigham Young settled Utah. But Romney himself has lived his whole life surrounded by non-Mormons. Where I had lived, Romney writes in his memoir, church affiliation wasn't an issue. Until now, he's campaigned as if that were the case, brushing aside questions about Mormon theology as he did during this town hall meeting in California.

Unidentified Man: I was wondering if you could enlighten me exactly what your religion is about and what your beliefs are, and how those beliefs might affect your decision making as president of the United States.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): Well, for the first part of your question, I can tell you just go on whatever it is, Mormon Church, or LDS Church, or whatever, dot com and they can tell you what you'd like to know.

HORSLEY: According to excerpts released by the campaign, Romney won't go much beyond that today. Instead he'll focus, as he has before, on the values his faith shares with others.

Mr. ROMNEY: We believe that all the people of the world are in one family; that they're children of the same creator. We believe in the sanctity of human life. We believe in the importance of marriage and the foundational nature of a family.

HORSLEY: Some of Romney's advisers would just assume he'd left it at that, fearing a big speech on faith would simply draw unwanted attention to his membership in a church that more than a quarter of Americans view unfavorably, and some evangelicals consider a cult.

But Romney has decided to confront those worries directly. USC political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe says it's no accident today's speech comes as Romney has slipped to second place in Iowa polls, behind former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee - a Baptist minister.

Professor SHERRY BEBITCH JEFFE (Policy, Planning and Development, University of Southern California): It's almost as though you could hear somebody saying we can't afford to get Swift-boated because of your religion. You've got to get out there. You've got to explain who you are. That's what Kennedy did, and it became a positive for him.

HORSLEY: John F. Kennedy's famous speech in 1960, in which he said being Catholic shouldn't keep him from the White House, is now a standard text on religious tolerance. But even though he's speaking just 100 miles from where Kennedy gave that speech, Romney says his talk won't be a repeat. Kennedy's message was essentially secular. He said the separation of church and state in America should be absolute.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation nor imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.

HORSLEY: That idea of setting religion aside doesn't fly in today's Republican Party, and Romney doesn't want it to. He told the Values Voters Summit in October, quote, "The effort to establish an anti-religion in America, the anti-religion of secularism has got to come to an end. We are a nation under God and we do place our trust in him."

Alan Wolfe, who directs the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, says far from trying to swim against the tide of religion and Republican politics, Romney would rather embrace it but expand it to include Mormons.

Professor ALAN WOLFE (Director, Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College): It used to be the case that evangelical Protestants hated Catholics. But evangelicals and Catholics made common cause because they both decided that even though they dislike each other, both of them hated secular people more. So what Romney is trying to say is, look, I'm a Mormon, I'm religious, I hate the secular people, too, let me in.

HORSLEY: Some evangelicals are willing to open that door, like Mark Demas(ph), a member of Romney's faith and value stirring committee. Demas, who's a Southern Baptist, says he's more interested in Romney's demonstrated values than his theology.

Mr. MARK DEMAS (Member, Mitt Romney's Faith and Value Stirring Committee): We're not talking about a mystery Mormon or a hypothetical Mormon or a generic Mormon; we're talking about Mitt Romney. He has a name and a life and a record, an experience that we can look at and evaluate. And that's what we should evaluate.

HORSLEY: Romney is likely to stress that record today. But by campaigning on a platform of religious values, Romney has invited more scrutiny of his own religion than Kennedy or Romney's politician father faced four decades ago.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, College Station, Texas.

MONTAGNE: Watch and read President Kennedy's speech on religion at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.