In the most closely-scrutinized moment of his presidential campaign, Mitt Romney declared this morning that faith is central to his life and to America, but says he will not be a spokesman for Mormonism or serve only his religion if he is elected president.
"When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God," said Romney, who is seeking to become the nation's first Mormon president. "If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States."
The 25-minute speech, at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, is being treated as a major campaign event by the media. The cable networks covered it live.
Romney was introduced by the former president, George H.W. Bush, who said while he was not endorsing any candidate, warmly praised Romney and his family.
Romney appeared emotional and seemed to struggle to hold back tears at the end, when the hand-picked audience gave him a standing ovation.
Some compared Romney's speech to the one given by John F. Kennedy in his 1960 campaign before he was elected the nation's first Catholic president. And though he downplayed the comparison in the days leading up to the speech, Romney specifically cited Kennedy and that 1960 speech.
"Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president," Romney said on a stage festooned with American flags. "Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.
"Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.
While Romney said he will not be a spokesman for his faith or impose it on others, neither will he turn his back on it, as some would like.
"They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers I will be true to them and to my beliefs.
"Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it. But I think they underestimate the American people. Americans do not respect believers of convenience. Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.
"There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths.Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.
"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. 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.
While Romney did not detail the tenets of Mormonism, he said that his faith is squarely in the country's Judeo-Christian traditions.
"It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions," he will say. "And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter - on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people."
And he went to explicitly praise other faith traditions.
"I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims. As I travel across the country and see our towns and cities, I am always moved by the many houses of worship with their steeples, all pointing to heaven, reminding us of the source of life's blessings.
Romney also strongly defended the role of faith in American life and government.
"We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America the religion of secularism. They are wrong.
"I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.' "
And Romney said that he carries out his faith in his daily life and his family has over the years.
"I was taught in my home to honor God and love my neighbor," he says. "I saw my father march with Martin Luther King. I saw my parents provide compassionate care to others, in personal ways to people nearby, and in just as consequential ways in leading national volunteer movements."
"My faith is grounded on these truths. You can witness them in Ann and my marriage and in our family. We are a long way from perfect and we have surely stumbled along the way, but our aspirations, our values, are the self -same as those from the other faiths that stand upon this common foundation. And these convictions will indeed inform my presidency."
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Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.