Channeling JFK, Romney says a candidate should not be ‘rejected because of his faith’

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), in his much anticipated speech addressing his Mormon faith, echoed President John F. Kennedy Thursday morning, saying his candidacy is not defined by his faith and no candidate should be rejected because of their religion.

Like Kennedy’s efforts to assure voters he would not serve the pope over the Constitution, Romney sought to assure voters that he would be president of all faiths and “the common cause of the United States of America.”

“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,” Romney said.

“As governor, I tried to do the right as best I knew it, serving the law and answering the Constitution,” he added. “I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution -- and of course, I would not do so as president. I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.”

Romney also refused to “distance” himself from his religion or “disavow one or another of its precepts.”

“That I will not do,” Romney 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.”

The former governor also acknowledged the skepticism many analysts have expressed over Romney’s decision to give the speech, saying that if it sinks his campaign, “so be it.”

As expected, Romney refused to “describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines.”

“To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution,” Romney said. “No candidate should become the spokesman of his faith. For if he becomes president, he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.”

But Romney also sought to defend what he sees as the importance of religion in public life, saying God “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.” He received applause for saying people who promote “the religion of secularism” are wrong.

Romney tried to maneuver the delicate balance of separating the office from his personal religion while at the same time embracing what he sees as the crucial role religion plays in the country.

“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,’” Romney said.

Before he even spoke, Romney won a victory of sorts in the form of an introduction from former President H.W. Bush, though the former president made clear in his brief remarks that he is not endorsing any of the candidates. 

Romney’s speech came on the heels of last month’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll where 50 percent of those polled said the country is not ready to elect a Mormon president. That said, Romney was interrupted by applause several times throughout his address at the President George H.W. Bush library in College Station, Tex.

With 28 days to go before the Iowa caucuses, Romney is in a battle with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister. Huckabee has surged in recent weeks, almost entirely behind the support of evangelical Christians, and many analysts believe that surge was the driving force behind Romney’s decision to give a speech that even he admitted had divided his staff.

Huckabee said on MSNBC Thursday morning before Romney’s speech that Romney “shouldn’t be judged for his fitness of the presidency based on his religion.”