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Romney: Religion address won't be 'a JFK speech'

  • Story Highlights
  • Romney says speech is not to ease concerns about his Mormon faith
  • GOP presidential contender says he's "not going to be giving a JFK speech"
  • JFK, first Roman Catholic president, gave 1960 speech about role of religion
  • Romney has been looking to reassure evangelicals
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MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (CNN) -- Mitt Romney is brushing off comparisons between his upcoming speech about religion and John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 address, but the White House hopeful says the subject is an important one in the campaign.

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GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney will speak Thursday about the role of religion in society.

"I've long anticipated that at some point, I'd be talking about the role of religion in a free society," the former Massachusetts governor told reporters Monday. "That's what I'll be talking about."

The GOP candidate's campaign announced on Sunday his plans for a speech on "Faith in America." Romney will give the address Thursday at former President George H. W. Bush's presidential library in College Station, Texas.

The topic evokes John F. Kennedy's speech to Southern Baptist leaders in Houston in 1960, when the man who would become the first Roman Catholic president told ministers, "I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me."

The purpose of Thursday's speech is not to ease concerns about his Mormon faith, Romney said.

"I'm not going to be giving a JFK speech," Romney said. "He gave the definitive speech on discrimination relating to a political campaign, and what he said makes sense to me. I'm going to be talking about the role of religion and faith in America, in a free society." Video Watch what's behind Romney's decision to address his faith »

However, he added, "I certainly will answer some questions related to how my own faith will inform my presidency."

The Constitution bars any religious test for public office. But evangelical Christians are a major GOP voting bloc and make up a significant portion of Republican primary voters in South Carolina, a key early contest in 2008.

Romney has tried to allay their concerns about his Mormonism by emphasizing shared values such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

In October, he won the endorsement of the chancellor of South Carolina's fundamentalist Bob Jones University, Bob Jones III, who once described Mormonism and Catholicism as "cults which call themselves Christian."

The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims about 12 million adherents worldwide, roughly half of them in the United States.

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Followers consider themselves Christians, but elements of Mormon theology -- that the Garden of Eden was located in what is now Missouri, that a lost tribe of Israelites settled in North America and that a resurrected Jesus Christ visited them -- differ sharply from orthodox Christian belief.

The church's early belief in polygamy fueled its persecution as followers migrated across the United States, but church leaders renounced the practice in 1890.

A CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll in October found that 50 percent of Americans consider Mormons to be Christians, with 41 percent disagreeing. But only 19 percent said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon for president, and 77 percent said the issue would make no difference.

Republican pollster Whit Ayers called the upcoming address "a 'better safe than sorry' strategy" for Romney in the face of polls showing Americans have little knowledge of Mormon beliefs.

"I think what Gov. Romney needs to do is say that he's a member of a large, mainline Christian denomination," Ayers said. "If he does that, that will provide a measure of reassurance to some people are suspicious about Mormonism."

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Sunday's announcement about the Texas speech had been anticipated for some time. Romney said religion "is an important topic to talk about as you think about what our nation needs to consider to maintain its culture."

"It just seemed earlier there wasn't a lot of focus on this issue, and it wouldn't have the kind of attention it deserves," he said. "The first caucus and primary is coming up in January, so I wanted to go before then, and this seemed like as good a time as any." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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