(CNSNews.com) - Christian conservatives considering the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney in early primary states will arrive at a defining moment this Thursday when the candidate discusses his Mormon faith in a major speech.
This assessment comes from Rev. Lou Sheldon and other Christian leaders who do not see Romney's religious beliefs as a major impediment to his attaining the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, is traveling to College Station, Texas, where he will deliver his speech, "Faith in America," at the George Bush Presidential Library.
Sheldon, chairman and founder of the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), told Cybercast News Service he considers Romney a strong Christian who shares pro-family values with social conservatives. He also said Romney would take the oath of office with his hand on the Bible, not on the Book of Mormon in January 2009.
That issue was raised a year ago, Sheldon explained, when some news reports suggested a Muslim congressman might take his oath with a Koran.
"The Book of Mormon is not the Bible, and he's the first to admit that," Sheldon said, who also serves as co-chair of the Romney campaign's faith and values committee.
Traditionally, many Christians have thought of Mormonism as a cult, Sheldon acknowledged. But over time the theological differences among Mormons, Catholics, and Protestants have given way to shared common values, he said. For this reason, Romney has the opportunity to reach new voters on Thursday.
"If his address emulates faith in God and religious liberty and justice for all, with the relationship being that he is accountable to God for what he says and does, then I don't think you will see Christian voters moving away from him because he is Mormon," Sheldon said.
"I believe he will be doing this. He will very definitely be taking the attitude that there is a dependence on the ruling power of God. I'm convinced this will be a winner for him," he added.
As has been reported by Cybercast News Service, prospective primary voters are more likely to react against the candidate's shift on key policy questions than against his religion.
Nevertheless, the recent surge of support for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has persuaded the Romney campaign to move forward with a speech that more fully addresses the relation between his religious convictions and the presidential campaign, surmised Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League.
"The reason he's giving the speech is because he's going south in the polls and this is a way of putting the media spotlight back on him," said Donohue. "It's all about Huckabee scaring the daylights out of these people."
The Catholic League does not object to a Mormon becoming president, Donohue continued. In fact, he said, there is a strong ideological connection among Evangelicals, traditional Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and Mormons, despite theological differences.
While there may be a small amount of "skepticism" directed toward Romney on the basis of his religion, Donohue does not anticipate a substantial number of Catholics and Protestants moving away from the Massachusetts Republican on the basis of his religion.
Rev. Jesse Peterson, founder and president of BOND (the Brotherhood Organization of New Destiny) concurred. The upcoming speech gives Romney an opportunity to answer questions about Mormonism and to highlight values that are celebrated and invoked by other Christians, he said.
"They are big on the family and they are strongly pro-life," Peterson observed. "There is no reason to vote against him simply because he is a Mormon, and I don't see a lot of Christians moving this way."
However, "a large question mark does remain after the word Mormon," which the former Massachusetts governor needs to address, said Sheldon. As a former Baptist preacher, Huckabee is strongly positioned to present himself to Christian voters, and this is a challenge for Romney, Sheldon added.
"Evangelicals talk about their faith like they talk about baseball," Sheldon said. "Romney needs to demonstrate that he's comfortable talking about his faith in public."
Moreover, Romney can distinguish himself from Huckabee in key policy areas like immigration, taxation, and executive experience, he said.
"He [Romney] is much better on the issue of no amnesty [for illegal aliens] and border sovereignty than Huckabee," Sheldon said. "Also, Massachusetts is a much larger and more populous state than Arkansas. Romney's executive experience is far superior."
Ideally, there should be less discussion of religion per se in the presidential campaign and more discussion of important domestic and foreign policy questions, Rob Boston, assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in an interview.
Because Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution makes it clear there is no religious test for public office, it would not be appropriate to raise objections to a Romney candidacy that were strictly tied in with his religious affiliation, said Boston.
The parallel many media outlets have made with Romney's upcoming address and the speech John F. Kennedy gave in 1960 on his Catholicism have been overstated, said Boston.
While Kennedy embraced "separation of Church and State" as a way of quelling speculation he would not take direction from the Vatican, Romney cannot afford to do this "because he would face rebellion among the Evangelicals he's trying to court," Boston said.
To regain traction among Republican primary voters in key early states Romney should build his campaign around a set of themes that "pulls at the heartstrings" of Americans, Charles Dunn, a prominent Evangelical in academia, told Cybercast News Service.
The former Massachusetts governor has seen his once substantial lead in Iowa collapse in the wake of an unanticipated surge in support for Huckabee. The most recent Iowa Rasmussen Poll shows Huckabee in the lead at 28 percent with Romney at 25 percent. The average numbers taken from the past five Iowa polls show Romney with a three-point lead.
The recent drop in support Romney has experienced probably has more to do with his "flip-flopping" on important positions like abortion than it does with antipathy toward Mormonism, said Ann Stone, who chairs Republicans for Choice.
"There's going to be some small-minded people, religious bigots, who object to any religion other than their own," she said. "But I don't think this is the main issue. My biggest concern as a Republican is that we don't know who we are going to get if Romney is elected. Republicans should reject him because he has been on both sides of many issues."
On ABC's "This Week," on Sunday, host George Stephanopoulos asked Huckabee, a Southern Baptist, whether he agrees with Al Moulder, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that Mormonism contradicts the basic tenets of Christianity.
Huckabee answered: "I have enough time trying to be the Christian I need to be rather than trying to tell a Mormon how he needs to behave. So I'm not going to get into that argument because my goal in life is not to evaluate what's wrong with your faith or somebody else's, but it's to be able to live mine so I remember the greatest commandment is love my neighbor as myself."
Romney has more problems with "rank and file" Republican voters than he does with Evangelicals and other Christians, said Charles Dunn. Although he has run an "astute" campaign so far, Romney is encountering a rough patch, in part, because he has not developed a central theme or message, said Dunn.
When Romney delivered the commencement address at Regent University last May, he focused mostly on the importance of marriage and discussed key issues that were well received, Dunn recalled. However, if he expects his speech to resonate on Thursday, Romney should be prepared to "plow new territory."
Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, said in an interview that Romney should consider "echoing" some of the points Kennedy made in 1960, particularly as they pertain to the constitutional provision ruling out a religious test for office.
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