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Romney Draws Fire for Speech on Religion

Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney gave a much publicized speech this week on religion, politics and his Mormon faith, and Jewish groups wasted little time in criticizing it.

While they endorsed Romney’s affirmation of the principles of religious toleration and the separation of church and state, both the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee raised concerns about parts of the speech seemingly designed to help sell the former Massachusetts governor to conservative Christian voters who do not accept Mormonism as a legitimate expression of their faith.

The speech “reflected an effort we have seen in the current campaign — indeed on the part of many of the candidates — to appeal to religious voters on the basis of shared religiosity,” wrote Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, in an opinion piece published by JTA earlier this week. The candidates, Foxman cautioned, “are not seeking to convince the American people that one’s religious beliefs should not be a test for office. Rather they are emphasizing that their strongly held religious beliefs are yet another reason to vote for them.”

Romney’s speech — delivered December 6 at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas — was viewed widely as an effort to regain traction in Iowa, where the presidential candidate was once the GOP’s frontrunner but is now polling second to onetime Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister. In recent weeks, the Huckabee campaign has aggressively courted the state’s Christian voters, employing, among other things, a commercial in which the words “Christian leader” scroll across the screen.

In Texas, Romney’s delicately calibrated speech seemed tailor-made for his critics on the religious right, even as he argued that no American should face a religious test for office. Although Romney did not dwell long on the tenets of Mormonism, which differs theologically from the various Christian denominations in a number of significant ways, he affirmed his belief in Jesus as the “son of God and the Savior of Mankind.”

More broadly, Romney argued for free religious expression in the public square, a cause championed by conservatives. He decried what he termed the “new religion in America — the religion of secularism.” Freedom, he said, “requires religion just as religion requires freedom.”

“When Gov. Romney stated that ‘freedom requires religion’ he unfortunately was giving voice to a divide along religious lines that has no place in our body politic,” wrote Jeffrey Sinensky, the AJCommittee’s director of domestic policy, in a statement released to the press.

Marc Stern, who is a church-state expert and the American Jewish Congress’s general counsel, wrote in an e-mail to the Forward that he agreed that Romney’s speech “seemed to exclude non-believers from the American polity.” At the same time, Stern added, “Romney’s defense of the role of religion [in public life] is not entirely off base,” given the chorus of opposition from the left that confines “the role of religion to the purely personal [realm].”

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