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Romney takes leap of faith with religion speech

  • Story Highlights
  • Romney to address role of religion in society in speech Thursday
  • Speech is being compared to JFK's 1960 speech about Catholicism, politics
  • Some say speech is what sealed Kennedy's win over Nixon
  • 19 percent say they are less likely to vote for a Mormon, poll shows
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By Kristi Keck
CNN
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(CNN) -- White House hopeful Mitt Romney will tell Americans Thursday morning as he seeks to become the nation's first Mormon president that he shares the same "moral convictions" as other people of faith.

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GOP White House hopeful Mitt Romney says his address won't be a "JFK speech."

The former Massachusetts governor is delivering the speech to address religion's role in government but also to address concerns voters might have about the Mormon religion.

In excerpts released Thursday morning, Romney talks about the shared convictions of all faiths. But he resists those who would have him explain his own faith.

"There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution," according to the excerpt.

"No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president, he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths."

The GOP contender has brushed off comparisons between his speech and John F. Kennedy's famous address about his religious beliefs, insisting it won't be a flashback to 1960.

"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."

However, he added, "I certainly will answer some questions related to how my own faith will inform my presidency." Video Watch why Romney's faith could trouble some voters »

The GOP candidate's campaign announced on Sunday his plans for the speech on "Faith in America." Romney will give the address at 10:30 a.m. ET at former President George H. W. Bush's presidential library in College Station, Texas. About 300 people -- a combination of friends, family and religious and conservative leaders -- will be in the audience, according to a campaign spokesperson. Video Watch what's behind Romney's decision to talk about faith »

Nearly a half century earlier, Kennedy took the stage in Houston, Texas, and addressed concerns that the Vatican would influence his policies.

"But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured -- perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this," Kennedy said before Southern Baptist leaders on September 12, 1960. Video Watch Kennedy describe the 'real issues' of his time »

"It is apparently necessary for me to state once again -- not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me -- but what kind of America I believe in," he said, adding "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

Kennedy's move was daring. He had come under attack for his Catholic upbringing, and he was tackling the issue before an audience of Southern Baptists.

"Given the closeness of the vote, you could easily make the argument that JFK won because of that speech," said CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider.

The man who wants to become the first Mormon president faces a different religious climate. Nearly 77 percent of those questioned in an October CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll said the fact that a candidate is a Mormon would not be a factor in the way they vote for president. But a significant portion -- 19 percent -- said they are less likely to vote for a Mormon.

"Those who have the biggest problem supporting a Mormon are church-going and evangelical Christians -- particularly those who believe that Mormonism is not a Christian religion," Schneider said, citing the October poll. What do Mormons believe? »

And that also represents a large portion of the Republican base.

Kennedy wasn't viewed as a prominent player in Catholic circles. He told the Texas crowd, "I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic." Video Watch Kennedy promise to separate his religion's views from his own »

"Non-Catholics expected Kennedy to say his faith would make no difference, which is hardly what today's Republican Christian conservatives want to hear," religion reporter Dick Ostling said in an interview with ReligionWriter.

Romney, however, is active in his church. At age 19, he became a full-time missionary of the Mormon church, temporarily leaving college to fulfill a Mormon calling and eventually becoming the equivalent of a bishop.

Romney later made a fortune in the business world, and played a big role in the financial success of the 2002 Olympic winter games. In 2002, he defeated the Democrats and became governor of traditionally liberal Massachusetts.

In 1960, Kennedy was already the Democratic Party nominee when he made his famous speech. Romney, on the other hand, has yet to seal his party's nomination. He is still vying for his party's vote, and the evangelical Christian vote in particular, which some say puts him in a more difficult position than Kennedy.

"Romney will address deeply committed religious Republicans and tell them, 'My values are the same as yours, even if we belong to different churches,' '' Schneider said.

Brushing off differences between Mormons and other Christians is not the best campaign strategy, according to Ostling in RW.

"Better to candidly admit there are differences but these should not affect voting decisions," Ostling told RW. "The more effective plea is tolerance, asking voters to follow the spirit of the Constitution's ban on any 'religious test' to hold public office."

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 banned the practice in 1890. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Mitt RomneyJohn F. KennedyThe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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