DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Mitt Romney's much-anticipated speech at the Republican National Convention tomorrow night, will be his chance to tell his story to the world. Perhaps the most unique part of that story is Romney's faith. He's a devout Mormon, and that fact contains political risks and rewards. Here's NPR's Barbara Bradley Haggerty.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Mitt Romney comes from a prominent Mormon family. He's held important leadership positions in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But he rarely talks about his faith, And when he does, he seems uncomfortable. Here he is last week, on the Catholic television network EWTN.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)
MITT ROMNEY: Well, I believe that providence has helped guide me in decisions I've made throughout my life. I pray every day; typically, more than once. And when I pray, I pray for guidance.
HAGERTY: In this interview, and in a recent one with Cathedral Age magazine, Romney talked about his faith in broad terms. He never used the word "Mormon." But Joanna Brooks, a professor at San Diego State University and a Mormon herself, is encouraged that he's beginning to open up.
JOANNA BROOKS: I think one of the unintended consequences of his reticence was that he gave off the sense that there was something to be ashamed of in Mormonism, something to be feared.
HAGERTY: Brooks, who's author of "The Book of Mormon Girl," says Romney should talk about his days as a missionary, and the millions of dollars he's given to charity. He should play up the untold hours he's spent as a lay pastor and regional president in Massachusetts; when he prayed with people, counseled them, and helped those who were struggling economically.
BROOKS: These are powerful parts of Romney's faith story that might assist voters in seeing him as more than a wealthy, sort of evasive bureaucrat - seeing him as a caring human being.
HAGERTY: But along with the benefits of talking about his faith, there are risks, says Robert Jones, who heads the polling firm Public Religion Research Institute.
ROBERT JONES: If he starts opening the door to the specifics of Mormon theology, questions about the Book of Mormon versus the Bible, then he's in very dangerous territory.
HAGERTY: Particularly with white evangelicals, a powerful part of the Republican base. Most evangelicals don't consider Mormons to be Christian because Mormons have an additional sacred text, as important as the Bible. They believe that everyone is saved. There are the historical controversies; the church's history of polygamy and racism. And then, says Joanna Brooks, there are the doctrines that strike non-Mormons as - well, weird.
BROOKS: They hear, for example, that Mormons believe they can have their own planet, which is sort of a cartoon of a much richer doctrine. They hear about underwear that Mormons wear, and it all seems so goofy.
HAGERTY: Brooks says that these aren't a big part of Mormonism. While the theology does say people can become like gods and get their own planets, it's downplayed these days. As for the white, cotton underwear that Mormons wear, it's just a reminder to live a holy life. Pollster Robert Jones notes that Romney faces another hurdle, as he tries to explain his faith. Most Americans don't know any Mormons because they're concentrated in Utah and the Mountain West.
JONES: And so therefore, they rely on things they hear in the media. They rely on pop culture references - from things like the Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon," or "South Park," or "Big Love."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I BELIEVE")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob. I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well. And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri...
HAGERTY: Mormons say this song is inaccurate; and Mark DeMoss, an evangelical and a senior adviser to Romney, says it doesn't matter. People will be voting for a president, not a national pastor.
MARK DEMOSS: On a personal level and a spiritual level, I might care a great deal about what somebody believed doctrinally. In the context of a presidential election, I don't care.
HAGERTY: What evangelicals do care about, is shared values.
ALBERT MOHLER: There's an enormous amount of overlap.
HAGERTY: Albert Mohler is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
MOHLER: When it comes to the importance of family and the centrality of marriage; the responsibility to reward industry, and to reward thrift, and to reward the moral virtues; yes, there's a great deal in common.
HAGERTY: Pollsters say while evangelicals have come to approve of him, Romney has struggled to excite them. To rally the evangelical troops, who overwhelmingly want a president with strong religious beliefs, Joanna Brooks says Romney needs to publicly embrace his Mormon faith, despite the stereotypes.
BROOKS: He needs to laugh - brush it off - and use it as an opportunity to say, yeah, yeah, yeah; here's the real story of who I am. Here's all the good things I learned.
HAGERTY: Romney will have a chance to tell his faith story to the rest of the country Thursday night.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.