WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney on Sunday said he pulled off to the side of the road and wept when he heard in 1978 that the elders at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had decided to let blacks participate in Church rites.
"I can remember when I heard about the change being made. I was driving home from — I think it was law school, but I was driving home — going through the Fresh Pond rotary in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I heard it on the radio and I pulled over and literally wept," the Republican presidential candidate said.
Romney said the matter still makes him emotional today.
The former Massachusetts governor said that the Mormon church's decision to change its doctrine had no impact on his own views of race relations — he had long been brought up to believe that all people were created equal in God's eyes.
“It’s very deep and fundamental in my life and my most core beliefs that all people are children of God. My faith has always told me that. My faith has also always told me that in the eyes of God, every individual was merited the fullest degree of happiness in the hereafter and I had no question that African Americans and blacks generally would have every right and every benefit in the hereafter that anyone else had and that God is no respecter of persons.”
In a wide-ranging interview on NBC's "Meet The Press," Romney said he got much of his views on civil rights from his father, George Romney, an auto industry executive who served as governor of Michigan and once ran for president.
Romney also defended his religions against accusations that it is a cult, but said he was willing to accept the endorsement from notable evangelical Christians like Bob Jones III who make such claims.
Romney is feeling the heat in Iowa, where another Republican candidate, Mike Huckabee has surged to challenge Romney's frontrunner status. As a result, the two have fought over religious issues — Huckabee is a Baptist minister — as well as who's more liberal.
In the latest back-and-forth, Romney criticized Huckabee's comments in Foreign Affairs Magazine. In his essay, the former Arkansas governor said President Bush and the administration's "arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad."
"That's an insult to the president, and Mike Huckabee should apologize to the president," Romney said. Asked about his own criticisms toward the war in Iraq, Romney responded that it's one thing to criticize a policy that is not working, it's another to accuse the policymaker of continuing down a path merely for his own benefit.
Afterward, Huckabee said the article was not about criticizing the president, it was about developing a foreign policy that is tough but also more responsive to working with allies. He added he was interested in attracting voters "who care about the future of this country."
"I'm certainly not standing with Ron Paul and his basically walk away and lose philosophy. Obviously, Mitt Romney didn't read the article and he should do some reading before he does some talking," Huckabee told FOX News. "This was not a shot at President Bush. I was supporting President Bush when Mitt Romney wasn't."
In the hour-long interview, Romney handled more than a dozen questions on his so-called "flip-flops" on abortion, stem cells, gun control and immigration.
On immigration, he said he would not propose imprisonment for employers of illegal aliens in this country but would form a policy that recommends illegals go home after time. He also defended his hiring of a landscaping company that employed illegals, and noted false reports on the situation.
He said that he'd like to see abortion ultimately ended in the U.S., but would not fight for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in all 50 states. He would support a Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.
“The first step in my view is that Roe v. Wade be overturned and ultimately, as an aspirational goal, I would love it if America came to a point, where we are not today, where the people of America would welcome a society that did not have abortion,” he said. “But that’s not where we are.”
Romney said he supports background checks to make sure "crazies" can't buy guns and backed the original assault weapons ban, but he became a member of the National Rifle Association because he supports Second Amendment rights. He added that he doesn't line up 100 percent with the NRA but opponents who are trying to suggest he's changed his position are scratching at straws.
Romney responded that he admits he's had a change of heart on several issues, but doesn't consider that a weakness. Instead, he said his reversals show a maturity of thought that voters should want in a president.
"If you’re looking for someone who’s never changed any position on any policy, then I’m not your guy,” Romney said. “I do learn from experience. If you want someone who doesn’t learn from experience, who stubbornly takes a position on a particular act and says, ‘Well, I’m never changing my view based on what I’ve learned,’ that doesn’t make sense to me," he said.
Program host Tim Russert noted that the George and Mitt Romney team joins the ranks of 31 parent-child couples who have appeared on "Meet the Press."
"Touches my heart," Romney replied at the end of the program.