(photo credit: AP)
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said some Americans are taking the concept of the separation of church and state too far and railed against those who would establish "the religion of secularism" in a speech Thursday aimed at reassuring voters about his own religious background.
Romney backed public holiday displays including Christmas nativity scenes and hanukkiot and urged the country not to remove references to God from US currency and the Pledge of Allegiance.
A debate is raging in America about the permissibility of such references and the permissibility of religious displays, a debate which traditionally intensifies in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Romney has also been the subject of a more personal religious debate - whether his faith as a Mormon will affect his chances of winning the Republican nomination.
Only about two percent of Americans are Mormons, and some 30% of potential voters have told pollsters they would not support a candidate of that faith. Surveys have shown particular hostility among evangelical Christians - a key constituency for Romney in his efforts to capture the conservative vote - some of whom portray Mormonism as heretical.
In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, Romney said that he did not expect to be hindered by these attitudes.
"I think people in this country want to know what the values are of a person that's running for president," he told the Post. "If they determine that their values are consistent with American values, they'll, in the final analysis, be fine."
On Thursday, Romney sought to put these issues to rest, saying that he believed that "Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind," but refused to further detail his church's distinctive doctrines, because doing so would "enable the very religious test" for office prohibited by the US Constitution.
He called for religious tolerance, saying that a president "will need the prayers of the people of all faiths," and several times noted the importance of liberty and freedom of belief in the eyes of the country's founders.
Romney also praised other religions' attributes, including "the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims."
At the same time, he attacked radical Islam for "killing Christians, Jews, and Muslims with equal indifference" and for "preaching not by reason or example, but in the coercion of minds and the shedding of blood."
Harkening back to former president John F. Kennedy's pledge to remain independent of the Catholic Church when his faith was viewed skeptically by many American voters, Romney declared that, "No authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin."
He said that, "no religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion," but he added that, "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. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America - the religion of secularism. They are wrong."
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