COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Republican Mitt Romney, confronting voters' skepticism about his Mormon faith, declared Thursday that as president he would "serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause," and said calls for him to explain and justify his religious beliefs go against the profound wishes of the nation's founders.
At the same time, he decried those who would remove from public life "any acknowledgment of God," and he said that "during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places."
In a speech delivered at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum less than a month before the first nomination primaries, Romney said he shares "moral convictions" with Americans of all faiths, though surveys suggest up to half of likely voters have qualms about electing the first Mormon president.
"There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines," Romney said. "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."
"When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God," Romney said in a pledge echoing the famous speech Democrat John F. Kennedy made in 1960 when he was seeking to become the first Catholic elected 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," Romney said. "A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States."
More broadly, Romney sought to allay concerns of Christian conservatives, some of whom have propelled Mike Huckabee, a one-time Southern Baptist minister, to join Romney atop the polls in Iowa, which kicks off presidential voting next month.
Huckabee, who was a Southern Baptist preacher before entering politics, said Thursday that Romney's religion has no bearing on whether he would make a good president.
"I think it's a matter of what his views are - whether they are consistent, whether they are authentic, just like mine are," Huckabee told NBC's "Today." "If I had actions that were completely opposite of my Christian faith, then I would think people would have reason to doubt if this part of my life, which is supposed to be so important, doesn't influence me. Then they would have to question whether or not there are other areas of my life that lack that authenticity as well.
"It has nothing to do with what faith a person has - it's whether or not that person's life is consistent with how he lives it."
"It is important to recognize that, while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions," said Romney.
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The former Massachusetts governor also sought to use the occasion to sound a call for greater religious thought in daily civic life.
"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," Romney said.
"The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust," he added.
Former President George H.W. Bush introduced Romney and provided the venue for the speech. The Bush library, located on the edge of the Texas A&M campus, is 90 miles from Houston, where Kennedy delivered his speech about faith and politics just two months before winning the 1960 election.
Romney's backdrop on stage was 10 American flags and a replica of the presidential seal.
Beyond speaking about faith, he sought to use the occasion to relaunch his campaign as the broader electorate begins to tune into his nomination fight against a field that includes former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Striking a family chord, Romney's wife of 38 years, Ann, and four of the couple's five sons were joining him for the speech.
"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," Romney said. "And these convictions will indeed inform my presidency."
Political foes have accused Romney of switching his positions on some social issues, like abortion, when it became expedient.
"Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests," said Romney, who favors overturning the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
In an appeal to social and Christian conservatives, he also invited James Bopp Jr., an anti-abortion activist who is Romney's "special adviser on life issues," and Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, to be his guests at the speech.
"I don't think his Mormonism is a deal breaker for most Americans, but only Mitt Romney can close the deal," Land told ABC's "Good Morning America." Asked directly if he thought Mormons were Christians, Land said, "No, I do not."
While Romney has been subject to some leafletting and phone calling pointing to religious differences between his faith and others, he has faced little religious bigotry or questions on the campaign trail. Instead, political realities played a role in his decision to make the speech.
In an AP-Yahoo poll last month, half said they had some problems supporting a Mormon presidential candidate, including one-fifth who said it would make them very uncomfortable.
Fifty-six percent of white evangelical Christians - a major portion of likely participants in the early GOP presidential contests in Iowa and South Carolina - expressed reservations about a Mormon candidate. Among non-evangelicals, 48 percent said it troubled them. Almost a quarter - 23 percent - of evangelicals said they were very uncomfortable with the idea.
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