MANCHESTER, N.H. — Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said Monday that he would not focus on his Mormon beliefs in a major speech on religion this week and instead would discuss his concern that “faith has disappeared from the public square.”
The former Massachusetts governor encouraged Americans to learn about Mormonism but said he did not see himself as a spokesman for his religion.
“There’s plenty of ways that people can learn more about my faith if they’d like to, I’m sure — a lot of websites people can go to,” Romney told reporters as he opened a two-day New Hampshire campaign swing.
Romney’s speech Thursday in Texas will confront a key challenge to his candidacy: many Republican evangelicals’ wariness of Mormonism.
A poll released in September by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press underscored Romney’s problem. It found that 39% of white evangelical Protestants surveyed had an unfavorable opinion of Mormons; 46% had a positive impression.
The recent surge in support for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a onetime Southern Baptist pastor, threatens to upend Romney in Iowa, where evangelicals will dominate the Jan. 3 caucuses that open the party’s White House nomination fight. The latest Iowa polls have the two in a virtual dead heat.
Inspired by a speech given in September 1960 by Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy, whose Roman Catholic beliefs engendered fears among Protestants that as president he would put the church’s teachings ahead of the national interest, Romney wrote his address Thursday in his hotel suite in Boca Raton, Fla., a spokesman said.
Kennedy, speaking to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston, said he believed in an America where separation of church and state was absolute, and where no public official took policy instructions from the pope or any other ecclesiastical source.
“This year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed,” he said. “In other years it has been — and may someday be again — a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist.”
Eight weeks after that speech, Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic elected president.
On Monday, Romney called Kennedy’s address “the definitive speech” on politics and religion.
“What he said makes sense to me,” Romney said.
“I want to make sure we maintain our religious heritage in this country,” he said, “not a particular brand of faith, if you will, not a particular sect or denomination, but rather the great moral heritage that we have that’s so critical to the future of this country.
“And so I’ll be talking about faith in America, not my own faith in America, and of course I’ll answer the obligatory questions, as he did, but this is not a repeat or an update of the Kennedy speech.”
Romney also said that he did not see his faith as playing a significant role in the campaign.
“I just don’t think in the final analysis, it will be the deciding factor,” he said.
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