In a speech many in Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's inner circle reportedly urged him not to give, the former Massachusetts governor took on thorny questions about his Mormon religion Thursday morning (December 6) by vowing that, as president, he would never put his personal faith above his solemn oath of office.
"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," said Romney in the forcefully delivered "Faith in America" address at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, in which he only mentioned Mormonism once. "Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin. ... I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law."
Seeking to become the country's first Mormon president, Romney has long declined to discuss in detail the articles of his faith, one that pundits have predicted could serve as a roadblock on his road to the White House if he cannot convince Christian conservatives and evangelicals to embrace a religion some of them view with skepticism. And while the speech didn't really touch on his personal beliefs, the address attempted to display his respect for a variety of religious traditions, as well as his belief that religious liberty has a central place in the governance of the United States.
Quoting the country's second president, John Adams, Romney said that like our nation's other founders, Adams believed that there was an essential connection between the survival of a free country and the protection of religious freedom. "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom," he said in a sound bite clearly aimed at proving to skeptics that he will keep religious values at the forefront of his presidency. "Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone."
As his campaign had done leading up to the speech — courtesy of a dramatic picture of Romney at his desk working on the address — the candidate sought to evoke the famous speech given by Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960, in which he explained what role his Catholicism would play if he were elected president. "Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president," Romney said. "Like him, I am an American running for president. 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."
Quoting another iconic president, Abraham Lincoln, Romney said he was a follower of America's "political religion," a commitment to defending the rule of law and the Constitution. "When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God," said Romney, who has continually battled, and batted down, questions about Mormonism's past, which for a period included a belief in polygamy and which did not officially admit black men as priests until 1978.
"If I am fortunate to become your 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 of the United States." In his only use of the word Mormon, Romney said he would not heed calls from some to distance himself from the religion of his forefathers or disavow any of its precepts, even if it results in the failure of his candidacy. "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. ... Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it. But I think they underestimate the American people. Americans do not respect believers of convenience. Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world."
Arguing that explaining the doctrines of his church would be falling prey to the very religious tests the nation's forefathers prohibited in the Constitution, Romney said he would not become a spokesperson for his faith even as he praised the qualities he's seen in many of the faiths he's encountered, from the Catholic Mass, to the "tenderness in spirit among the Pentecostals ... the ancient tradition of the Jews ... and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims."
In his most overt olive branch to the all-important evangelical voters whose support could help his bid, or whose rejection could sink it, Romney said he believed in the separation of church and state, but not in removing any acknowledgment of God from the public domain. "The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square," he said. "We are a nation 'under God' and in God we do indeed trust."