MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Nearly a half century after John F. Kennedy broke the Catholic barrier to the presidency, Mitt Romney is attempting a similar feat. His Mormon faith turns off some conservative Christians. Many believers say the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not Christianity.

And as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, Romney must win them to get through the Republican primaries.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: At a forum in Des Moines on Saturday, other Republican hopefuls spoke repeatedly about their Christian faith. But Romney barely mentioned God, much less the Church of Latter-day Saints. Instead, he spoke of family, drawing the biggest applause with this line.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Governor, Massachusetts; Republican Presidential Candidate): I believe that every child deserves a mom and a dad. And I think it's critical for us as a nation to put in place an amendment to our federal Constitution that protects the sanctity of marriage.

(Soundbite of applause)

HAGERTY: This was not the easiest crowd for Romney, filled, as it was, with pro-life Christians. It was worse for John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, who skipped the forum. And the reaction to Romney was mixed.

Mary Doren, a stay-at-home mom, said Romney's faith was a deal breaker.

Ms. MARY DOREN: I'm a Christian. I don't think a Mormon or a Catholic is a Christian.

HAGERTY: Ditto for Suzanne Clackey, who homeschools her children.

Ms. SUZANNE CLACKEY: My understanding is that they do not believe in the triune God, and so that would bother me.

HAGERTY: Amy Neihaw said she didn't care whether he's Mormon or not.

Ms. AMY NEIHAW: I'm familiar with the religion. And although I don't believe it, their morals are very biblical for the most part, and he supports the issues that I care about.

HAGERTY: But some, like Greg Hartzel, wondered about the depth of Romney's sincerity.

Mr. GREG HARTZEL: My hesitation doesn't stem from his faith. My hesitation stems from his recent conversion to conservatism.

HAGERTY: Particularly on gay marriage and abortion. For example, here's Romney when running for senator of Massachusetts in 1994.

Mr. ROMNEY: I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country.

HAGERTY: And here he is addressing pro-life advocates last month while running for president where he said he's one in a long line of converts.

Mr. ROMNEY: I'm evidence that your work, that your relentless campaign to promote the sanctity of human life bears fruit.

HAGERTY: Many conservatives might be skeptical about the depth of his commitment, but Christian conservatives have another layer of issues with Romney.

Dr. ALBERT MOHLER (President, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary): Mormonism is not Christianity.

HAGERTY: So says Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a powerful voice among conservative Christians.

Dr. MOHLER: Because historically, the whole idea of Mormonism was to repudiate Christianity, to replace Christianity. Joseph Smith claimed to have received this revelation that would restore the true church, the church that, according to the documents of Mormonism, fell into corruption immediately after the death of the apostles.

HAGERTY: He says they differ on issues like the Trinity, the role of Jesus Christ as necessary for our personal salvation, and the nature of God. The Mormon Church maintains, for example, that God began as man and progressed to deity, something that people can do today.

The question for Romney is, will any of this stop Christians from voting for him? Maybe, says John Green, a senior fellow at Pew Research Center.

Dr. JOHN GREEN (Senior Fellow, Pew Research Center): When asked in polls if they would vote for a Mormon candidate, a substantial minority of conservative Christians say that they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is a Mormon. And when those questions are followed up, there's a significant group that there's no chance that they would vote for a Mormon candidate.

HAGERTY: Which could be a problem, Green says, since any Republican candidate needs the evangelical base to win the primaries and get to the general election.

Dr. GREEN: When President Bush was re-elected in 2004, approximately four out of 10 of his votes came from conservative Christians. In some Republican primaries, that might even be larger particularly in the South.

HAGERTY: Which is rich in religious conservative voters. But Green says even evangelicals don't vote on religion alone, especially when Romney's rivals may say they are Protestant or Catholic, but fail to be pro-life or anti-gay marriage enough.

And Albert Mohler of The Southern Baptist Seminary says the squeaky-clean Romney, who has been married to his wife for 38 years, scores awfully high on family values and morality.

Dr. MOHLER: There are circumstances in which I might well vote for Mitt Romney as president of the United States.

HAGERTY: In the right political context, he says, there could be a lot of evangelicals voting for a Mormon candidate.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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