Mitt Romney Offers Comfort to Religious Conservatives With Faith Speech

Mitt Romney took his Mormon faith directly to the public Thursday, defining the relationship between religion and public office in a speech in Texas — and many Christian conservatives said they came away impressed with the Republican presidential candidate.

The 20-minute address titled "Faith in America" was in large part an attempt by Romney to dispel concerns of evangelical Christians and Southern Baptists who have been skeptical of his religion.

Afterward, conservative Christian leaders responded favorably.

"He will get a second hearing or a second look from a lot of Southern Baptists," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "There are an unusually high number of votes this late in the campaign season which are not locked into cement."

Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson issued a written statement afterward lauding Romney for his remarks.

"Gov. Romney's speech was a magnificent reminder of the role religious faith must play in government and public policy. His delivery was passionate and his message was inspirational," he said. "Whether it will answer all the questions and concerns of evangelical Christian voters is yet to be determined, but the governor is to be commended for articulating the importance of our religious heritage as it relates to today."

Romney had to walk a fine line, standing by his faith while downplaying it as a legitimate issue on the campaign trail. In the address, he made no apologies for Mormonism, and he underscored the value of religious liberty in America.

If the talk resonates with voters, it could serve as the definitive statement on Romney's religion, and put to rest questions about his faith that have followed him in his quest for the White House.

“I thought it was as good a statement on religious freedom as we could ever expect from a candidate running for public office,” said C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist preacher, author and president of the Interfaith Alliance.

Romney chose to deliver the speech at a time when his once comfortable lead in early test states is being challenged, particularly by Southern Baptist Minister Mike Huckabee, whose support among Evangelicals has helped propel him in the polls.

On Thursday, Romney said the word "Mormon" just once, and called on followers of all religions to embrace their common ground. Romney said his convictions would "inform," but not dictate his presidency.

Gaddy said at some point the former Massachusetts governor will have to clarify what he meant by that. But he said the underlying goal of comforting skeptics was fulfilled.

“I saw nothing in the speech that could cause concern in the evangelical community,” he said.

The speech, delivered at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, was carefully choreographed. Romney — who started writing the speech in a Florida hotel last week the day after a debate in which he stumbled over a question about the Bible — took the rare step of using a teleprompter Thursday.

The speech had been rumored for months, and had caused division among his aides, some of whom thought it would draw unwanted attention. But once the decision was made, the campaign played up the address as a landmark moment.

“I think he hit the mark that he needed to hit today,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told FOX News Thursday.

However, Brinkley said the speech would only become memorable in a historical sense if polling reflects that it had a positive electoral impact for Romney.

And he said Romney's reluctance to address the specific elements of Mormonism that he believes leaves open the door for more faith-based questions during the balance of the campaign.

“Mormonism is seen by some as a cult, and there seems to be people who really truly are skeptical about his faith," Brinkley said. "It'll be dogging him the entire way to some degree."

Political Calculations

While 16 members of Congress are Mormon, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Romney acknowledges his religion is more of an issue because he is running for president. If elected, he would be the first Mormon in the Oval Office.

Mormons make up just 2 percent of the American population, and are not widely understood or accepted, according to recent surveys.

A FOX News poll of 900 registered voters released in October found that only 36 percent of those polled thought most Americans would feel comfortable with a Mormon president. Twenty-one percent said Romney's faith made them less likely to vote for him. Twenty-six percent said they did not think Mormons were Christians.

A Pew Research Center poll in September found a quarter of all Republicans said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon.

Romney's GOP rivals reacted to his faith speech Thursday with acceptance.

GOP rival Fred Thompson told FOX News that he would take Romney “at his word” that his faith would not dictate his decisions.

“I think it was a good speech. I mean, He made some general points about the importance of faith, which I certainly agree with. We have no religious test in this country for president,” Thompson said, adding “I don’t know why he felt compelled to (give the speech).”

Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani said at a stop in Florida that he agreed with most of what Romney said.

"You would wish that everybody would move beyond (religion)," Giuliani said. "I believe his talk helped to put that issue to rest."

But Romney's address could also serve another purpose — humanizing the candidate, whose picture-perfect image has made him seem inaccessible with some voters and has helped widen the opening for Huckabee, whose humble roots and average looks seem to connect with voters. Romney, who has changed positions on some issues and is presented as a model politician with a model family, wants to appear genuine and show that he speaks from the heart.

He touched on authenticity Thursday, saying, "Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it. But ... Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs even to gain the world."

In the lead-up to the speech, Romney's address was frequently compared with John F. Kennedy's in the 1960 campaign where he confronted critical questions about his Catholic faith.

Kennedy said then that the Catholic Church would not speak for him, and warned others of the religious persecution he was facing.

"Today, I may be the victim — but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril," Kennedy said.

Romney referenced Kennedy Thursday, and even though he suggested he would not try to top the former president, his speech in many ways mirrored themes voiced by Kennedy. Perhaps no coincidence, both speeches were delivered in Texas.

But Ted Sorensen, former Kennedy speechwriter, said the differences were clear. First, he said Kennedy spoke to a group of skeptical Protestant ministers and took hostile questions afterward, while Romney spoke to a friendly audience and left without taking any questions. Romney also addressed his beliefs about Jesus Christ with more specificity than Kennedy, while Kennedy chose to address major issues facing the nation like the Cold War.

"Today there are far more important issues than Governor Romney's religion," he said. "This country is in such desperate condition that I would hope no thoughtful citizen would cast his or her vote on the basis of such superficial reasons as race or religion."

A statement by the American Atheists after the speech also ridiculed Romney for comparing the speech to Kennedy's, claiming his address alienated those who do not embrace religion. In his speech, Romney said that religion does have a place in the public domain, and that those establishing the religion of secularism are "wrong."

"His speech was a 'pitch' to the religious right, which already has too much political clout in this country," American Atheists President Ellen Johnson said in the statement, adding that Romney overlooked Americans who profess no religious beliefs.

Another noted difference between Kennedy and Romney: Kennedy gave his address after he was already the party's nominee. Romney chose not to wait.

Romney's campaign insisted slipping polls did not precipitate the decision to roll out the speech.

In early voting Iowa, a Des Moines Register poll taken from Nov. 25 to 28 showed Huckabee with 29 percent and Romney with 24 percent. The poll’s margin of error was 4.4 percent.

In a state where Christian conservatives make up anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of Republicans who traditionally attend the Iowa caucuses, Huckabee has only amplified the issue of religion, calling himself a Christian leader in television ads.

Peter Sprigg, of the Family Research Council, praised Romney for the religion speech, but cast doubts on its ability to turn the tide of the polls.

"I am skeptical of the theory that Romney is slipping and Huckabee is gaining because of anti-Mormon prejudice," he said. "I think that's not giving enough credit to Mike Huckabee for the positive aspects of his campaign."

Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, said only the results of the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries will prove the effectiveness of "Faith in America."

“Evangelicals and other conservative people of faith are not only more than willing to vote for someone … who is a member of a different church or synagogue or mosque, but they have actually demonstrated that throughout their history,” Reed said. "I think they need to be addressed and I think (Romney) did so today."

FOX News' Steve Brown, Carl Cameron and Mosheh Oinounou contributed to this report.