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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. This morning we're going to examine religion and politics. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will formally announce his presidential bid next Tuesday. Romney is considered a top prospect for the Republican presidential nomination. He has tried to position himself as the candidate for social conservatives, which leads to the question of his religion, especially among some key Republicans.

NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES: The last time religion was a major issue in a presidential campaign was in 1960 with Democrat John Kennedy.

JOHN F: While this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed. In other years, it has been and may someday be again a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you.

BERKES: Today, it's Mitt Romney facing religious scrutiny. Romney's a faithful Mormon who believes religion makes him a better candidate, as he noted last year on "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace."

MITT ROMNEY: Well, I think people in this country want a person of faith to lead them as their governor, as their senator, as their president. I don't think most people care what brand of faith they have.

BERKES: But Romney's traveling to places where people aren't entirely receptive to a Mormon president. Here he is last week at a rotary club luncheon in Aiken, South Carolina.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: And I hope you'll give a warm Aiken welcome to Governor Mitt Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: Thank you, senator, wow. Thank you.

BERKES: The speech was all about Romney's executive competence. As a successful venture capitalist, as the white knight for a scandal-plagued Olympics, and as Massachusetts governor. There wasn't a single mention of religion until Romney faced reporters outside.

Unidentified Man #1: Is the Mormon question just a press question, or do sort of ordinary folks ask you it?

ROMNEY: I get asked a good deal. It's a - you know, I'm proud of my heritage, I'm proud of my faith, proud of the opportunity I have to get out and talk to folks. And I'll tell you it's a lot of fun.

BERKES: That's Romney changing the subject to how much fun it is being in South Carolina. It better be, because the state votes early in the presidential primaries and its voters include lots of fundamentalist Christians considered key to the Republican nomination. Some have a tough time supporting a Mormon, including state Representative Gloria Arias Haskins.

GLORIA ARIAS HASKINS: I think as an Evangelical Christian it is a big thing for me, yes. Because, again, his faith is inconsistent with my faith. His faith is consistent with the Book of Mormon; my faith is consistent with God's word, the Bible. And they're not compatible.

BERKES: Mormons are not Christians to many evangelicals. They reject the Book of Mormon as a new New Testament, the Mormon notion that mortals achieve godhood, and the Mormon belief in modern prophecy. Add to that the 50,000 Mormon missionaries seeking converts around the world.

RICHARD LAND: There's a special tension with Mormonism, because probably two of the more aggressive evangelistic faiths in America are Southern Baptists and Mormons.

BERKES: Doctor Richard Land speaks for the Southern Baptist Convention, which lists the Mormon faith under cults and does not object to other candidates not considered Christian.

LAND: Everyone acknowledges that Judaism is not a Christian faith, I mean, by definition, and yet most Southern Baptists had absolutely no problem with an observant Jew running for vice president. And I think that the difference is that Judaism is not an actively evangelistic faith.

BERKES: Some worry that a President Romney would become missionary in chief, promoting the Mormon gospel and taking direction from the Mormon prophet. Here's Romney again last year on "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace."

ROMNEY: I'm never going to get into a discussion about my personal beliefs and about particular doctrines of my church, and so forth. But what I can say is this - and I go back to a speech that Abraham Lincoln made when he was 28 years old - when he said that America has a political religion, which is to place the oath of office, an oath to abide by a nation of laws and the Constitution above all others. And there's no question that I make that my primary responsibility.

BERKES: In fact, Romney supported both gay and abortion rights in 1994 when he ran for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. His church long held opposing positions. Now Romney's reaching out to Christian fundamentalists as a converted social conservative and mainstream Christian. He tells them Christ is his savior too. Doctor Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.

LAND: He can overcome the Mormon part of it. It's not a deal killer if he is the most viable conservative candidate. If he proves that he's the most viable social conservative candidate, because I'm not electing a pastor in chief, I'm electing a commander in chief.

BERKES: One measure of the challenge Romney faces is public sentiment as gauged by a half-dozen recent national polls. From 14 to 50 percent of the people surveyed don't seem ready to back a Mormon for president. So supporters urge Mitt Romney to do what John Kennedy did in 1960 - clearly and directly address politics and faith.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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