The Romney religion speech tightrope

At a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H., Romney describes the delicate line he will walk on Thursday as he tells the nation what his Mormon faith means to him.

By Michael Scherer

Published December 3, 2007 9:19PM (EST)

Mitt Romney's official schedule called for a noontime address Monday to a group of Rotarians about the U.S. economy. Ever the organization man, Romney kept to his schedule, clicking through a couple dozen PowerPoint slides, with bar and line graphs galore, before a lunchtime crowd of about 50. (Key quote: "The squiggly line on top is the percentage of our national economy that goes to federal taxes.")

After he was done, the real event began. As the Rotarians filed out, Romney stepped before an unusually animated scrum of eager reporters, wanting to know more about his plans to speak in Texas Thursday about his own religious beliefs. "The Speech" as it has become known, will be Romney's first major attempt of the campaign season to explain how his Mormon faith "would inform his presidency if he were elected," according to the campaign.

Once he got before the cameras, Romney made some surprising admissions. First of all, he said he has no plans to repeat John Kennedy's famous 1960 address, in which Kennedy announced that he was "not the Catholic candidate for president." Said Romney:

I am not going to be giving a JFK speech. He gave the definitive speech, if you will, on discrimination relating to a political campaign, and what he said makes sense to me. I am going to be talking about the role of religion, faith, in America and in a free society.

While remaining vague, Romney was suggesting something rather complex. On the one hand, he plans to tell American people that like Kennedy, he should not be judged by his specific religion. But at the same time, he plans to make the case for the importance of religion in public life. He continued:

My speech is going to be talking about our common heritage, the Founding Fathers and the faith they had in a creator, not a specific religion. They did not establish a religion. But their fundamental values were very important to the founding of this country, and I believe remain important today. And that's the topic I will be addressing.

This tightrope walk is, of course, intended to appeal to early Republican primary state voters, many of whom have concerns about the Mormon church but also believe religious faith should play a larger role in the public sphere. Romney's challenge will be to find the right balance between the two. He does not want to fall into a defense of Mormonism ("I am certainly not a spokesman for my faith"). But he also wants to make the case that his beliefs are compatible with those of the great majority of American voters. ("This is a nation that comes together in our unified desire to have the blessings of the creator.")

Stay tuned to see if he can pull it off.

Video: Mitt Romney plans to speak about his faith

Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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