Romney Gambles on Religion

For Mitt Romney, his Mormon faith has long been the theological elephant in the room. Romney even served as a bishop for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints but has continually shied away from discussions about his faith.

Romney told the press today, "I've long anticipated that, at some point, I'd be talking about the role of religion in a free society."

But few would have guessed the moment would have come so soon. As recently as a few weeks ago, some staffers suggested it was not imminent, merely because there was "no need" for Romney to give a speech on religion, with him comfortably ahead in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Romney advisers said the decision to give a speech was a personal one, and Romney felt the "time has come to address the issue." He'll deliver his speech Thursday at the George H.W. Bush presidential library in Texas.

But polls show Romney now trailing Mike Huckabee in Iowa, and that 39 percent of evangelical Republicans feel "uncomfortable" with the idea of a Mormon president.

Bill McKeever, of the Mormonism Research Ministry, appears to confirm that belief, saying, "We don't believe that Mormonism fits the core values of Christianity."

Some question the Mormon belief that God was once a man, or that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, like the Old and New Testaments.

Randall Balmer, author of "God in the White House," said, "I think that Romney understands, to appeal to these evangelical voters, he is going to have to address the religious issue."

Romney has long said he would not answer for every doctrine of his faith.

Earlier this year, Romney said in an interview with ABC's Charles Gibson, "If someone wants to understand what members of our faith believe, they probably can go to the church — there are Web sites that describe these differences."

His planned address has drawn comparisons to John F. Kennedy.

On Sept. 12, 1960, Kennedy said, "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me."

Romney said his speech will discuss how his faith would inform his presidency, but it could be a double-edged sword.

ABC News analyst Mark Halperin, also of Time Magazine, offered this analysis: "The risk is that this highlights his Mormon religion, gets people focused on exactly the wrong place, from his point of view."

This could be just what the Romney campaign needs to regain momentum — or it could be just what they need to avoid.