Mitt Romney addressed the issue of his Mormon faith today in a highly anticipated speech given at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.
Religion's role in politics has grown since the Reagan era. Evangelical Christians have largely supported Republican candidates, and Romney needs to convince them and voters in general that his faith won't influence his decision-making in the White House.
Romney is not the first Mormon to run for president. In fact, his father, George Wilcken Romney, ran in 1968 against Richard M. Nixon. The Vietnam War proved to be the important issue of the day, not religion. George Romney hurt his candidacy after flip-flopping on the war and using a poor choice of words about how he had been "brainwashed" into supporting the war. The
overtones created a controversy that lead to his withdrawal from the race.
Mitt Romney has chosen not to make the same mistake. He has strongly supported U.S. involvement in Iraq and began his speech by highlighting the need to continue fighting "radical violent Islam."
Many pundits, including influential conservative columnist Robert Novak, have suggested Romney needed a "JFK moment" to answer questions on his faith. In 1960, President John F. Kennedy -- also from Massachusetts -- famously downplayed his Catholic faith. Romney echoed these sentiments:
"Almost 50 years ago, another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president. Like him, I am an American running for president."
Romney continued on to answer a more important question, saying, "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." He pledged to Americans that the role of his church leaders ends with church matters and does not encroach upon matters of the state.
But does Romney want to have it both ways and thus be judged on the values of his faith?
Romney conspicuously pointed out he believes in Jesus Christ as the son of God and the savior of mankind, as do other Christians. He then acknowledged the distinction of the Mormon faith from other Christian doctrines: "Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not a basis for criticism but rather a test of tolerance."
Romney downplayed the difference by pointing out he will need the prayers of people of all faiths to be successful as our president. He also wants the faithful of all sects to remember they share a common course. This includes the struggle with abortion, civil rights and the right to life in general.
Romney does face an actual test of his message of faith very soon at the Iowa caucus Jan. 3. The Iowa Republican Party has a large number of evangelical Christians who take part in the caucus. Romney will need them to win.
Romney faces a close contest with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Iowa. Huckabee is a former Baptist minister and, according to a
Los Angeles Times
poll, has become the choice of many evangelicals. He has surged in local polls in Iowa over the last few weeks. A new
national poll had Huckabee moving ahead of Romney in national polls and challenging frontrunner Rudy Giuliani.
Romney has laid his faith on the table. Now we wait for voters in primaries in Iowa and across the nation to judge whether it's an important issue in this election.