JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has taken the first official step toward a bid for the White House. On Thursday he filed papers with the Federal Election Commission to create a presidential exploratory committee and fundraising apparatus. Romney, a Republican, begins with a number of positives - movie star good looks, excellent communication skills, success in business and politics, and the turnaround of the Salt Lake City Olympics. One potential problem for Romney is religion. He's a Mormon, a former bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. One poll shows that as many as 43 percent of Americans say they would never vote for a candidate who's a Mormon. Here to talk with us about this issue is John Green, a senior fellow in religion and politics at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN GREEN (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life): It's good to be here.

YDSTIE: Back in 1960, John Kennedy's membership in the Roman Catholic Church was an issue in the presidential election. He won, of course. What are the similarities and differences to Romney's situation?

Mr. GREEN: Well, in some respects it is really very similar in that Catholics were not very popular among the Protestant majority in the United States in 1960. And today, if the polls are to be believed, Mormons are not particularly popular among the large group of the American public. I think there are some differences, however. The Roman Catholic community was very large in 1960. And one of the reasons that Protestants were afraid of Catholics is because they were very numerous, but also that gave Kennedy a great resource to draw on, this large block of voters in key states.

You know, fast forward to the present day. The Latter-Day Saints are actually a very small portion of the population, perhaps a little less than two percent. So they're not feared in the same way that Catholics once were by Protestants. On the other hand, outside of Utah, that's not a very large voting block that one could mobilize.

YDSTIE: Of course many Mormons have run for statewide office and a few have even run for president. Has the issue of Mormonism come up in previous election campaigns?

Mr. GREEN: Overall, in recent times when Mormons have been elected at the state, local and even federal level, the question of their faith has really not come up, largely because they've been elected in areas where Mormons are well known and accepted. But there have been a few occasions in recent times where it has arisen. When the former governor of Massachusetts, Governor Romney, ran for the Senate before he was elected for governor, that whole question of his faith did come up in that campaign. I think we're also in a different period in terms of presidential politics, one where there's a great deal of exposure, where we actually nominate candidates through a primary process which can be very competitive. And so the issue of a candidate's religion is much more likely to come up in this context than it did in the past or than it would at the state or local level.

YDSTIE: Let's talk about the Mormon religion and why such a large minority of Americans appears to have such great concerns about electing a Mormon.

Mr. GREEN: Well, you know, I think one of the reasons that we may be seeing these sort of negative views in some opinion polls regarding Mormons is because most people don't know very much about the Latter-Day Saints and the few things they do know seem exotic or perhaps even a little troubling. For instance, in many people's minds polygamy is very closely associated with Mormons. Historically that was the case, but it has not been for over 100 years. The Latter-Day Saints prohibit polygamy. But we've had some prominent television programs, there's been some news about polygamists in the West. And so a lot of people tend to identify this group about which they don't know very much else in terms of that very unusual practice.

So that's one of the reasons. Another reason is that Mormons really are a distinct religious tradition, a version of Christianity that has some theological distinctives that set them apart from other Christians. And certain groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention and some evangelicals take those distinctions very, very seriously and they're very critical of these - of beliefs of the Mormon Church. So there's also some theological disputes as well.

YDSTIE: How do you think this issue is likely to emerge during the election?

Mr. GREEN: Well, the whole question of Governor Romney's faith of course has already come up, because people look at the strategic possibilities for his campaign. But if past primary elections are any guide, then where this is likely to come up is in a primary where Governor Romney's opponents, you know, want to compete against him. And questions about religion, because they are often so controversial, often times occur radar, behind the scenes, a whispering campaign rather than openly and, say, on television or in speeches. And it's a possibility that that kind of effort might arouse certain groups against Governor Romney, because they would have a negative view of his religion.

YDSTIE: Thanks very much.

Mr. GREEN: You're very welcome.

YDSTIE: John Green is a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

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