| ARLINGTON. Texas
ARLINGTON. Texas Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney needs to assure evangelicals that his Mormon faith would not be his ultimate guide if he wants their support, an influential Southern Baptist official said on Tuesday.
"If Romney wants to get significant Southern Baptist and evangelical support he's going to have to give a Kennedy-style speech," said Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Land was referring to a speech by then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in Houston in 1960 in which he assured southern evangelicals he would not let his Catholic faith dictate his policies but defended the right of a Catholic to run for office.
White evangelical Protestants like Southern Baptists are a an important part of the Republican Party's base but they have yet to unite around a single candidate before the presidential election in November 2008.
In their eyes much of the Republican field is flawed, but Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has a huge problem: many evangelicals, who take matters of faith very seriously, regard his Mormon religion as a cult.
A recent survey by the Poll Research Center found that 52 percent of white evangelical Protestants who attend church on a regular basis do not view Mormonism, founded by Joseph Smith in western New York in 1830, as a Christian faith.
"I think that there is a percentage, there's a minority of Southern Baptists who will not under any circumstances vote for a Mormon," Land told Reuters on the sidelines of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention's annual meeting.
This view was echoed in conversations with several others at the meeting.
Land, who is not endorsing any candidates himself, said Romney needed to follow Kennedy's lead if he wanted to sell himself to this tough crowd. Romney has tended to skirt the issue of his Mormon background or touch on it in passing.
"What Kennedy did in that speech, he defends the right of a Catholic to run for president ... He was (also) saying the Catholic church is not going to dictate to me," Land said.
"If I was Romney I would say that I am not the Mormon candidate for president. I am the Republican Party's candidate or I want to be ... The Mormon Church does not speak for me on matters of public policy or faith and I don't speak for them on matters of public policy and faith," he said.
The Southern Baptist Convention numbers around 16 million making it the largest denomination among America's 60 million strong evangelical community.
Southern Baptists are taught from a young age that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon faith is officially known, is a cult-like religion.
It is regarded with more suspicion than most other faiths because it is seen as an active poacher of converts from the Southern Baptist flock.
Both faiths are aggressively evangelical and overlap geographically especially in many of the western mountain states like Nevada.
But Mormons and Southern Baptists share some common values such as strident opposition to abortion and gay marriage and other social conservative causes.
Romney has attempted to sell himself as a social conservative to the right-wing Christian wing of the Republican Party and has drummed up some support. There is even called a grass-roots group called "Evangelicals for Mitt."
(Editing by Chris Wilson)