That has slowly changed. The religious opposition to Mitt's Mormonism has gained some steam among Republican Religious Right advocates. That isn't to say there haven't been outspoken Evangelical Christians who have given support to the Presidential bid. However, there does seem to be a sharp split between those who think it should bar him and those who think it shouldn't. Despite the loud advice that Romney should give a similar rousing "JFK and the Catholic Question" speech, the party and the politics Romney finds himself in could actually make it a failure.
The most important difference is that the Republican Party is not the same as when JFK talked to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. More importantly, JFK was a Democrat in a country relatively secure in the idea of a national religious commonality. Back then there was no Religious Right. Such a movement of conservative religious political activists was still underground from the time of the repeal of alcohol prohibition. That stunning national rebuke, according to some historians, caused the Evangelical movement to turn inwards and shun politics. It wasn't until the 60s when the social traditions of the United States were questioned and attacked that a Religious Right slowly gained political momentum. Now they are in full bloom and very potent.
Religion does matter to a large segment of the Republican party. It has yet to be proven how much of an inclusive or exclusive brand of religiosity is involved. What is known is that any presidential candidate in the primaries has to face issues of faith, or be rejected by a powerful group of voters. That is why Romney cannot act like JFK. Any attack on religious political participation to the degree that Kennedy expressed would alienate the core religious voters. For instance, Romney could never (and probably would never) say anything like:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President -- should he be Catholic -- how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him.
I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation, nor imposed by the nation upon him¹ as a condition to holding that office.
I ask you tonight to follow in that tradition -- to judge me on the basis of 14 years in the Congress, on my declared stands against an Ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools, and against any boycott of the public schools -- which I attended myself
Where JFK could get away with this then, as he was a Democrat and his true audience was outside the halls of his speech, those words are anathema to the Republican Religious Right at this time. For starters, many believe that the idea of Separation of Church and State is an un-Constitutional lie and discriminatory to people of faith. Second, related to the former, aid to parochial schools and boycotts against public schools are considered a fight for the rights of religious people to have a voice.
It is for this reason Romney must be very careful about what he says when distancing himself from religious issues. Unlike JFK, who many suspected was Catholic in name only and had a large general election Catholic support, Romney doesn't have the luxury or the political philosophy to draw a sharp line. That would cost him as much support in the primaries as it might save him in the general election. As explained elsewhere about the religious audience he would be talking with:
Romney and his advisers compare the speech he will give to John Kennedy's appearance before the Houston Ministerial Association in which he addressed concerns about his Catholicism by talking about "an America where the separation of church and state is absolute." Romney can't say exactly that, since many of the supporters he's courting think the doctrine of separation of church and state is not enshrined in the Constitution and has been used by liberals to take religion out of public life. Plus, he's not asking that his faith not be an issue. He wants it to be an issue. He's running on it, but he wants to be the one to draw the line marking where his faith ends.
The best intellectual argument Romney could use isn't available to him, which is that all religions have their odd traditions and beliefs that look highly quirky under close examination. Romney could use my Catholic Church as an example, but in doing so, he'd risk alienating another key constituency. Imagine what fun he could have had with the Charismatics, some of whom speak in tongues or drink snake venom.
And so Romney is stuck in the middle of a very delicate balance. He is trying to come off (and arguably with more success than compared to the other two legitimate contenders) as "The Conservative" choice, but not have to deal with the "cultic beliefs" that his natural constituents brand him as having. As things have picked up outside the print establishment, his chances are not looking good. At best he has some strong support among Evangelical leaders, but the ground forces are fidgety.
It would be best to take up the mantra of conservative commentator Hugh Hewett, "I'm not looking for a pastor. I'm looking for a President," if the Religious Right is going to have any power in '08 elections. There is still time for that to happen, but no speech is going to sooth souls when faith is more than a side issue. Certainly Giuliani and McCain haven't been friendly to the religiously motivated. It will have to be up to the people to decide if theology or public morality is the ideals driving the political wagon. Those who say you can't have one without the other might find themselves standing alone.