COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Stepping beyond John F. Kennedy"s nearly 50-year-old commitment to absolute separation of church and state, Mitt Romney declared Thursday that the nation is rooted in religious values that leaders must preserve against secularism.

The former Massachusetts governor"s chase of the Republican presidential nomination has been threatened in the early-voting state of Iowa by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister. In his speech, Romney echoed Kennedy"s remarks in Houston before Kennedy won the presidency in 1960.

Like Kennedy, who reaffirmed his Catholic allegiance, Romney said he wouldn"t forsake his Mormon religion. Like Kennedy, Romney also said he wouldn"t be ruled by his church if elected president.

"I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest,"" Romney said. "A president must serve only the common cause of the people.""

His 20-minute speech, delivered against a backdrop of U.S. flags during a week he was raising money in Texas, mentioned the word "Mormon"" only once.

Romney suggested a need to reaffirm religion"s role in public life. "We are a nation 'Under God" and in God, we do indeed trust,"" Romney said. "We should acknowledge the Creator as did the (nation"s) 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.

" ... 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.'"

That statement drew one of about a dozen pops of applause from an audience of invited guests in an auditorium at the George Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University. The guests were joined by former President George H.W. Bush, Barbara Bush and most of Romney"s immediate family, who climbed on stage afterward to stand with Romney.

Romney, who listed aspects of several religions he admires, said: "Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me. 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."

In his only direct use of the word "Mormon," Romney said some would have him distance himself from his religion or disavow its precepts.

"That I will not do," he said. "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."

Romney said he's often asked what he believes about Jesus Christ. Because Mormons claim Jesus visited North America after his resurrection and other stories not found in the Bible, mainstream Christians often say the Mormon faith is not truly Christian. Mormons say they view Jesus as their savior just as other Christians do; they simply have additional narratives about their messiah revealed in the Book of Mormon.

Romney said he believes Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind: "My church"s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance."

Among the invitees, Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the Pat Robinson-founded American Center for Law and Justice, which specializes in cases defending religious freedom and freedom of speech, said Romney"s emphasis on religious liberty could have staying power with Americans.

Contacted afterward, Sanford Levinson , a professor of law and government at the University of Texas with an expertise in religious constitutional issues, said the underlying theme seemed to be "you have to be religious to be American; I can see where people would be irritated."

Gerry Hince of Bryan, Texas, a Bush library volunteer who has two sons in the U.S. military, liked the speech, though Romney did not clear up "any of the mysteries of Mormonism. That just means I'm going to have to do more homework" as a voter. Robert Millet, a professor of religious education at Brigham Young University, attended the speech with the Rev. Gregory Johnson, a conservative Baptist from Lehi, Utah. The pair have written a book on bridging the divide between a Mormon and an evangelical.

Both men said the speech served its purpose. "He threaded the needle he needed to thread," Johnson said, "to affirm the common good, as people of faith we can come together."

Johnson said Christian conservatives already skeptical of a candidate of the Mormon faith could remain so. "Prejudice still exists," he said. "If you already have a pretty negative view of Mormonism as a cult, this speech could come off as platitudes."

Christian evangelical voters, who typically turn out in GOP primaries, are believed to be skeptical of the Mormon faith. It's uncertain how such skepticism will play into the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, which kick off the presidential election year.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the speech "will alleviate the fears and the concerns of some" Christian conservatives. Kelly Shackelford, president of the Plano-based Free Market Foundation, supports Huckabee. Shackelford expressed doubt that Romney will recapture religious conservatives who have flocked to Huckabee.

It's "not about speeches," Shackelford said. "It is more about who people are, what they truly believe and how long they've been consistent on those beliefs."

Contributing: Eileen E. Flynn