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Interfaith Alliance chief urges Mitt Romney to give a 'JFK speech'

Rev. C. Welton Gaddy
Rev. C. Welton Gaddy

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is going to have to confront the confusion surrounding his Mormon faith at some point during the campaign, the head of the Washington, D.C.-based Interfaith Alliance said Wednesday.

"There is a lot of misunderstanding, there are myths, there are misperceptions about the Mormon faith," the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, pastor of a Baptist church in Louisiana, said during a teleconference on the role of religion in the 2008 presidential election.

The Rev. Gaddy said Romney likely will have to give a speech similar to one given to Southern Baptist leaders in 1960 by then-Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to address concerns raised about the control the Catholic Church might hold over him.

"I have a sense that as the race goes on, and particularly if Mitt Romney gets the Republican nomination, that he's going to be forced to do a statement such as John F. Kennedy did in Houston saying precisely what role religion plays in his life and how it would impact his presidency," the Rev. Gaddy told reporters on the conference call.

That doesn't mean, though, that the host of the "State of Belief" program on the liberal "Air America" network believes the discussion should focus on the merits of membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"I think it's a clearing of the air," the Rev. Gaddy said, because of the suggestion that Romney doesn't deserve support because of his beliefs. "I'm not asking to elevate this to a discussion of Mormonism as a candidate's strength or fault. I'm just saying let's get the facts out there and move on."

Romney isn't the first Mormon to run for president — Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch made an unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination in 2000, and so did Romney's father in 1968, the late Michigan governor George Romney, as well as LDS Church founder Joseph Smith.

But Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, is widely seen as a top-tier candidate for the Republican nomination, even leading polls in the early primary voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

His high profile in the race for the White House has attracted attacks on Mormonism from evangelical Christian conservatives, liberal pundits and others, including workers from rival Republican campaigns.

Romney told the Deseret Morning News in August that he wouldn't be a "shrinking violet" when it comes to defending his faith, but he wasn't ready to commit to giving a so-called "JFK speech" about Mormonism.

A spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, Gail Gitcho, said Wednesday that "Gov. Romney has previously indicated that he was considering a speech dealing with faith and values. No decision has been made, and it remains under consideration by the governor."

Romney can get past the questions about Mormonism, said both the Rev. Gaddy and another participant in the teleconference, Harvard University comparative religion and Indian studies professor Diana Eck.

"I think the person in the driver's seat there is the candidate," Eck said, calling on candidates to be clear about speaking as a member of a particular faith and as a potential public office holder. "Those two voices are different voices."

The Rev. Gaddy said Romney needs to make clear, as Kennedy did in his speech, that he understands "the demands of the Constitution" that the institutions of church and state are kept separate.

"The pressing need is not for a comprehensive understanding of the Mormon faith," the Rev. Gaddy said. "The pressing need is for the candidate to say, 'I am going to function as the president of the United States and not as a Mormon when I'm in the White House."'