By RACHEL ZOLL
AP Religion Writer
After years of avoiding direct mention of his religion, Mitt Romney will open up about his Mormon faith as he accepts the Republican nomination for president.
The former Massachusetts governor is the first Mormon presidential candidate on a major party ticket. It's unclear just how much detail he will provide on Thursday night, the pinnacle of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. He has spoken broadly in the past about the importance of prayer and belief in God, but has not discussed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
However, the roster of speakers promises at least a glimpse into his nearly 14 years of service as a lay Mormon pastor around Boston. The invocation will be given by Ken Hutchins, a retired Northborough, Mass., police chief, who was also a Mormon leader in the state, and Grant Bennett, who served as a church counselor to Romney, is scheduled to offer remarks.
"I think this is a speech where he's going to talk a lot about what's informed his values, what's informed his outlook. Of course his faith is an important part of that," Romney aide Kevin Madden said in Tampa this week. "It's an important part of who he is as a husband and a father. And so I think you can expect some of that."
Starting in the 1980s, Romney was a bishop in the Boston suburb of Belmont, a job akin to the pastor of a congregation. He then served as a stake president, the top Mormon authority in his region, which meant he presided over several congregations in a district similar to a diocese.
He counseled Latter-day Saints on their most personal concerns, regarding marriage, parenting, finances and faith. He worked with immigrant converts from Haiti, Cambodia and other countries. Bennett has in the past described how Romney built relationships with other religious groups around his Belmont, Mass., hometown, after a suspicious fire in 1984 destroyed a new Mormon meeting house there.
Other convention speakers have already laid a foundation for this new faith emphasis. In his acceptance speech Wednesday night, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, a Roman Catholic, said "our different faiths come together in the same moral creed." Ann Romney, in a speech meant to show a more personal side of her husband, describing the early challenges they faced as a couple, including religious differences. "I was Episcopalian. He was a Mormon," she said. The reference was striking given that the Romneys almost never use the word Mormon on the campaign trail.
Republican evangelicals have been playing down conflict with Latter-day Saints. Most prominently, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, speaking from the podium Wednesday night, said, "I care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church, than I do about where he takes this country." Huckabee, a Southern Baptist pastor before he entered politics, had publicly questioned Mormon beliefs when he was competing against Romney in the 2008 presidential primary. Most Christians don't consider Latter-day Saints part of traditional Christianity, although Mormons do.
Romney has struggled to navigate as a religious minority seeking the nation's highest office.
Since Mormons generally live in concentrated communities in the Mountain West and California, few Americans have met a Latter-day Saint. Most Mormons said they were stunned by the open expression of prejudice against their church during Romney's first bid for the White House.
In his 2008 campaign, Romney openly courted evangelicals, who make up about a quarter of the electorate and are a critical part of the Republican base. He stressed the beliefs he shared with Christian conservatives about Christ and the Bible, and he promised he would not be influenced on policy by the leaders of the LDS church. This year, he has done little public outreach with Protestant conservatives and, until now, has largely separated his Mormonism from his campaign.
"He's trying to find the right register, and those around him who advise him are trying to find the right register. Now, it seems, the push is to make him look human, that means emphasizing the admittedly wonderful things he has done in the church to help people," said Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a religion scholar at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who writes frequently about the LDS church. "The trick is to do that without bringing up the parts of Mormonism that might sound odd to others."
A Gallup poll in June found that voter bias against Mormons has barely budged for decades. In the survey, 18 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who happens to be a Mormon, compared to 17% who said so in 1967, when Romney's father George had been seeking the Republican nomination.
However, the campaign clearly felt more confident discussing the LDS Church since Romney sealed the nomination.
Polls indicate that Republican voters are willing to set aside their concerns about the LDS church to oust President Barack Obama. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of people who know that Romney is Mormon are comfortable with his religion or don't consider it a concern. In the days leading up to the convention, Romney told interviewers he prays daily and discussed the doubts he experienced about his religion when he, like most young Mormon men, fulfilled his church duty to serve as a missionary. Romney served in overwhelmingly Catholic France during the 1960s, and faced hostility as an American and a Mormon.
"I don't think underlying attitudes have changed," said John Green, director of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute for Applied Politics. "I don't think evangelicals are any less skeptical about Mormons, but an election is a choice and Republicans have something to work with here because of the unpopularity of Obama among this group of evangelicals."
AP reporter Steve Peoples in Tampa, Fla., contributed to this report.