RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Trace the route through the early voting states and you see one Republican with an advantage. A New York Times survey finds Mitt Romney leading in both Iowa and New Hampshire. But the same survey finds many of his supporters are not sure of their choice. And a little later in the primary schedule comes South Carolina, where the former Massachusetts governor faces a particular challenge. That state is seen as a test of which candidate does best with religious conservatives. Romney is Mormon.
So NPR's Linda Wertheimer has been asking South Carolina voters if they can support him.
LINDA WERTHEIMER: We met with South Baptist voters from Greenwood in the western part of the state and Mount Pleasant near Charleston in the south. Although we met many people who admire Romney's values, some of those same people are concerned about his faith.
At a women's bible study class at the Cooper East Baptist Church, we met Melanie Lott, who told us she was born in Utah.
Ms. MELANIE LOT: I, you know, have a little bit background, know a little bit about Mormonism. And there's absolutely no way that I could vote for Mitt Romney because of that. It's not a Biblically-based, Judeo-Christian religion. It's a cult.
WERTHEIMER: We heard that word from others as well. And people raised other concerns, like the attitude of the Mormon Church toward race.
Cindy Mosteller of Cooper East Baptist Church is a former Republican county chair in South Carolina.
Ms. CINDY MOSTELLER: You know, they wouldn't allow black people even in their church till '78. This is like theological. I don't see how they can defend it. I've asked Governor Romney these questions; he told me, who are you to ask me these questions? And I said at some point CNN could ask you these questions, Governor Romney. He basically said I'm through with this conversation. And I told him I live in this state with this many African-Americans. How do I ask them to endorse you if you're a nominee?
WERTHEIMER: The Romney campaign confirmed that encounter and an unpleasant exchange with Mosteller. They pointed out that she is on the Fred Thompson advisory committee. But besides race, there are also serious theological differences between Mormons and evangelical Christians; notably that the Latter Day Saints have an additional book besides the Bible, The Book of Mormon.
Ron Daimer(ph) is from Westside Baptist in Greenwood.
Mr. RON DAIMER: They have another book that they believe in, it's part of their faith system, that's not the Bible. And yet the Bible says this is it. This is finished. No jot, no tittle shall be added to this. I mean that's a major difference.
WERTHEIMER: The pastor of Cooper East Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant is called Buster because his last name is Brown. He told us that in his view, Mormons are desperately wrong, as he put it, on who Jesus Christ is and on salvation. But he also worries that a Mormon candidate may not be electable.
Reverend BUSTER BROWN: In the general election, what concerns me is that if Romney is the nominee and he gets in through the larger media, I fear that some of the issues that are really endemic to Mormonism - i.e., polygamy; they're very late coming to the understanding that all people are made in the image of God, not just Anglos - if that's really trumpeted loudly enough, I think it could really torpedo any Mormon candidate.
WERTHEIMER: We asked a religious historian, Kathleen Flake of Vanderbilt Divinity School, who is a Mormon, to help us. She said that the LDS Church does have a history of racism. Mormons did not make African-Americans completely equal until the late '70s. But, she said, given the governance of the church, once the leadership announced the change, discrimination was gone in doctrine and in practice. On the question of cults, she said the main source of mistrust is that second book. Evangelicals believe the Bible is the last word, indeed the only word.
Professor KATHLEEN FLAKE (Vanderbilt Divinity School): What Protestantism did was invest the charism of prophecy in the Bible and close it. And so when you get individuals who expand upon it, then people who believe that revelation ended with the Bible are going to look at groups that have new canon, they're going to call that cultish by definition.
WERTHEIMER: Mormons do have very different ideas about heaven and how to get there, about the nature of God and the nature of Jesus. But, Flake points out, there are differences among Protestants on doctrine, differences with Catholics, between Christians and Jews.
Prof. FLAKE: No one is denying the enormous theological differences between Mormonism and the rest of traditional Christianity. The only question is whether we're going to make theology an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign. These are enormous differences. But again, they're theological. And as Jefferson famously said, if it doesn't pick my pocket or break my leg, why should I care? The traditional position with respect to theological difference in American elections has always been Jefferson's.
WERTHEIMER: Most of these people who raised concerns about Romney's Mormonism will not vote for him in the South Carolina primary. But they might vote for him in November because of abortion, especially if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. Hal Lane is senior pastor at Westside Baptist in Greenwood.
Reverend HAL LANE (Westside Baptist Church): I worked with organizations in which we network with Mormons on issues - on pro-life issues, on traditional family issues, and things like that. But again, when we're looking for a candidate who really matches up with us, we're looking for someone who holds to traditional orthodox Christian beliefs. Will it rule out voting for him? For some perhaps, but not for others, but that would not make him our first choice.
WERTHEIMER: The bottom line for many people we met is whether Romney's position on abortion is heartfelt. We met Charla Fowler in the women's bible study class at Cooper East Baptist Church. Her concern: Romney opposes abortion now, but in the past he was not opposed.
Ms. CHARLA FOWLER: Instinctively, they don't like that. I think it's weird to say I'm going to call myself a conservative, but yet you've failed to embrace the things that conservatives agree with.
Why are you calling yourself a Mormon and you've stood staunchly on that if you are not going to defend the beliefs of the Mormon Church? I mean, call myself Shriner; oh, but by the way, I really don't care about crippled kids. I mean, it's ridiculous.
WERTHEIMER: About defending his faith, Romney has said his staff does not want him to make a major speech on his Mormonism, something like what John F. Kennedy did to allay fears about his Catholicism. We asked Kathleen Flake if that would help with the concerns of evangelical Christians in South Carolina.
Prof. FLAKE: I think Romney's problems with talking about his faith are that it sucks all the air out of the room, that it doesn't give him a chance to talk about himself as a person other than a person of faith. Religious belief is complex enough that it isn't suited to a short answer.
Protestants and Catholics in this country have the benefit of 200 years of a conversation on those subjects. So you can talk in short cuts, but Mormonism has never had the benefit of a calm public conversation about its beliefs.
When Romney says Jesus is my savior, people say that can't be true because Mormons are just too different.
WERTHEIMER: Mitt Romney may discover a pitfall of competing for the traditional values voters. Those voters traditionally reject candidates with religious values too different from their own.
Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.