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Romney Hopes to Sway Evangelicals with Speech

In a speech at Texas A&M University, Romney will try to dispel concerns about his religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The speech has been compared to John F. Kennedy's address to Protestant Evangelical pastors in 1960, and he hopes it will give him an easier forum to explain a complicated religion.

For example, last week during the CNN/YouTube debate, Romney was asked an awkward question for a Mormon: Does he believe every word of the Bible?

"You know," Romney sputtered uncharacteristically, "yes, I believe it's the word of God, the Bible is the word of God. The Bible is the word of God. I mean, I might interpret the word differently than you interpret the word, but I read the Bible and I believe the Bible is the word of God. I don't disagree with the Bible. I try to live by it."

Romney did not say he believes the Bible is inerrant, which evangelical Christians do. Nor did he say he believes the Book of Mormon is a new revelation from God, which Christians reject. Such theological shoals are difficult to negotiate in sound bites. And so Romney is offering a summary of his faith on his own terms – uninterrupted – in a speech in Texas on Thursday.

Shaun Casey, an expert on religion and politics at Wesley Theological Seminary, says Romney will be talking to the people he needs to in order to win the Republican nomination: the nearly 40 percent of white evangelicals who hold an unfavorable opinion of the Mormon faith.

"He has to show that his Mormon values are equivalent with evangelical, Christian values," Casey says. "The difficulty is he really can't drill down very far doctrinally or theologically because of some of the historic differences and the historic animosity between evangelical Christians on the one hand and Mormons on the other."

You could hear that ambivalence at Bob Evan's restaurant in Springfield, Va., where a group of men met to study the Bible on Wednesday morning. While Mormons insist that their faith is Christian, Lou Preebee says, they hold different views of the role of Jesus, salvation, the afterlife and the Trinity.

"By definition, you have to wonder if Mormonism is an authentic Christian faith. Most evangelicals would say definitely not," Prebee says, adding that electing a Mormon president would send a signal. "It gives a validation of Mormonism as a legitimate Christian denomination, which it is not."

Computer programmer Eric Hughes is willing to consider Romney — and he says Romney's speech could help or hurt his vote.

"Probably the biggest deal breaker for me would be if he were to go up there and claim that fundamental Christianity and Mormonism are identical," he said.

Why would that be a deal breaker?

"There are so many chameleons," Hughes says, "I would love to see somebody who can be completely open and honest with their faith."

Ralph Weitz, a lay minister, says he, too, is troubled by the doctrines of Mormonism.

"But on the other side, the Mormon faith does bring some values to the table, just like Kennedy's Catholicism did," Weitz says. "And he needs to clarify how much he will be controlled by the denomination, versus a faith that brings value."

In September 1960, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy made a speech to Evangelical leaders in Houston, Texas. Like Romney, Kennedy faced questions about whether he would follow the wishes of his church in public policy. He declared he would not. And he warned about religious intolerance.

"For while this year, it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist," Kennedy told the conservative pastors.

Kennedy added: "It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. 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."

But much has changed in nearly a half-century. In 1960, political candidates were not expected to wear their faith on their sleeve, as many do today. Kennedy also represented a religion followed by nearly one-third of all Americans. Mormonism claims about 3 percent.

And yet, some evangelical leaders have been receptive to Romney's message. Albert Mohler at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville has not endorsed Romney, but says he finds him an "attractive candidate."

"I find him attractive in terms of his policy positions," Mohler says. "And, I think along with many evangelicals, I would find Mitt Romney very attractive in terms of who he is as a man, as a husband, as a father. I think you're looking at someone who really does have the kind of experience, who carries himself like a president, and one that evangelicals could see in that office."

Mohler says evangelicals who say they won't vote for a Mormon may reconsider:

"If, for instance, there is a liberal Democrat, a Hillary Clinton, for example, at the top of the Democratic ticket, I think an awful lot of evangelicals will discover, 'Well, you know, a week ago, I didn't think I could vote for a Mormon. But now, I think I will.'"

Mitt Romney hopes to make that easier for them, starting with Thursday's speech.

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Barbara Bradley Hagerty
Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.