COLLEGE STATION, Texas GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney offered few details about his Mormon faith in his long-awaited speech on religion here Thursday, focusing instead on the need to stand up against efforts to eliminate God from public life and other beliefs he shares with conservatives.
"Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom," Romney said from the stage of the George H.W. Bush Library and Museum's conference center during what many have termed a risky attempt to silence questions about his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a faith not familiar to many voters notably in Iowa and other key early-voting states in the 2008 race.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said Romney's speech sent the right message to evangelical voters who don't see Mormons as fellow Christians.
"It's a ringing defense of the role that religion has played and should play and should not play in American public society," Land said. "I can't imagine that there's anyone who'd be less likely to vote for Mitt Romney after hearing this speech who's likely to vote in a Republican primary."
"People of religious faith respect genuine religious conviction," Land said. "He certainly helped himself with some evangelicals."
Romney spoke only briefly of his church, mentioning the word Mormon only once in a nearly half-hour speech but said he would not be distanced from his beliefs.
"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," he said, before acknowledging he holds different beliefs about Jesus Christ than other faiths, the only reference to LDS doctrine.
"There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines," Romney said, noting that that type of religious test is prohibited in the U.S. Constitution. "No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith," he said.
Romney described the American values all faiths share, including seeing liberty as "a gift of God, not an indulgence of government." He said he was taught to "honor God and love thy neighbor," and recalled seeing his father, the late Michigan governor and onetime presidential candidate George Romney, march with civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
"My faith is grounded on these truths," he said. "You can witness them in Ann and my marriage and in our family. We are a long way from perfect, and we surely stumbled along the way, but our aspirations, our values, are the self-same as those from the other faiths that stand upon this common foundation."
Romney referred to early LDS leader Brigham Young along with other American religious leaders who were persecuted for their beliefs before constitutional guarantees were firmly in place. He compared the faith-based culture of the United States with what he said was Europe's indifference to faith and the violence of radical Islamists.
Sonja Eddings Brown, a former KTVX Channel 4 reporter who now works as a media consultant in Los Angeles, said Romney did not need to go into more detail about his church. "As a Mormon, I feel like his example is really the strongest message," said Brown, who attended the speech.
Jay Sekulow, a lawyer with the American Center for Law and Justice founded by Pat Robertson, and a Romney adviser, said the speech was enough to change "the direction and tone of the debate" over whether a Mormon could be president.
Romney never mentioned by name the other presidential candidate who felt compelled to defend his religion in a high-profile speech John F. Kennedy. Kennedy also came to Texas, where he confronted critics of his Catholic faith in 1960. But unlike Romney, Kennedy delivered his address before a group of seemingly skeptical Baptist ministers and even took their questions afterward.
When Romney's speech ended, he walked among the members of his handpicked audience and accepted their congratulations and even a few hugs from longtime friends, like Utah developer Kem Gardner.
"I told him what I honestly felt, that it was extraordinary," Gardner said. "This was not a speech to Utah. This was a speech to the nation not a speech to Mormons." He said he'd been against Romney offering what some have called a "Mormon moment" about the faith.
There was an echo of Kennedy's speech when Romney said church leaders would not influence him as president. "Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin."
As governor of Massachusetts, an office he was elected to after serving as the head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney said he "did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution." And if elected president, he said, he "will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law."
Kennedy addressed those who were concerned a Catholic would be controlled by the pope by spelling out that he did not speak for his church on public matters nor did his church speak for him and promising to govern "without regard to outside religious pressure or dictate."
Much of what Romney said, though, was about the need for religion in public life, a very different message than that delivered by Kennedy, who called the separation of church and state absolute.
Saying that has been taken too far in recent years in an effort to, in effect, establish a religion of secularism, Romney said that was wrong and God should be welcomed into public life. "I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.'"
Speaking out against secularism "may be the most important in convincing non-Mormons that he is the real deal," Francis Beckwith, a philosophy and church-state studies professor at Baylor University, said after reading the speech.
"Many non-Mormon Christians feel patronized and condescended by secularists who talk eloquently of religious liberty but tell Christians to sit on the back of the secular bus whenever these Christians apply their faith in a public fashion."
Not everyone appreciated the sentiment, however. The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Romney should have recognized there are Americans who are nonbelievers.
"I am an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and I believe in my faith," Lynn said in a statement. "But I believe just as strongly that nonbelievers are good Americans too. I wish Romney had said that."
George H.W. Bush introduced Romney on the library's conference center auditorium stage. The former president, who was accompanied by his wife, Barbara, said other candidates have appeared on the same stage, and he has not endorsed anyone yet. But the Bushes and the Romneys the candidate, his wife, Ann, and four of their five sons stood together on stage after the speech.
Described by his advisers as upbeat, Romney did not take questions from reporters. He left College Station immediately after leaving the Bush Library for fund-raisers elsewhere in Texas and in Iowa.His campaign is already thinking ahead to the general election, with plans to start raising money that can only be spent if Romney becomes the GOP nominee for president. A massive fund-raiser for the general election is being set up for the day after the New Hampshire primary modeled after a similar event last January that raised millions of dollars with the help of Romney's high-powered political and business connections.
Contributing: Suzanne Struglinski