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Romney Faces Political Challenge Over Religion

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In U.S. presidential politics, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has a narrow lead over Georgia businessman Herman Cain in the latest CNN-ORC poll.  Most political analysts consider Romney the frontrunner for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination next year, but he is on the defensive about his religion. Romney is a member of the Mormon Church, formally known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons believe in the Christian Bible but also follow teachings from their founder and a holy book separate from the Bible.

“He is a true conservative and a genuine follower of Jesus Christ!” said Reverend Robert Jeffress -- an evangelical christian minister who supports Texas Governor Rick Perry for president.

Jeffress favors Perry over frontrunner Mitt Romney because the former Massachusetts governor is a Mormon.  “In my estimation, Mormonism is a cult, and it would give credence to a cult to have a Mormon candidate,” Jeffress said.

Jeffress says Mormons are moral people, but not part of mainstream Christianity, something Morman believer Linda Jensen finds offensive.  “It is not a cult.  We don’t have horns.  We don’t have several wives.  So let’s get past that,” Jensen said.

Many Americans prefer to keep politics and religion separate. But it doesn't always work that way.

Perry and Romney sparred over the Jeffress comments during the latest Republican debate in Las Vegas.

“That individual expressed an opinion.  I didn’t agree with it, Mitt, and I said so.  But the fact is Americans understand faith and what they have lost faith in is the current resident of the White House,” Perry said.

“That idea that we should choose people based upon their religion for public office is what I find to be most troubling because the founders of this country went to great lengths and even put it in the Constitution that we would not choose people to represent us in government based upon their religion,” Romney said.  (APTN DROPLINE 10-18-11 9PM 00:24:49:19 to 00:25:06:18)

Public opinion surveys show that most Americans are tolerant of diverse religious views, unless they are seen as extreme.

That is reflected in a recent sampling of opinion in Los Angeles.

“It is the extremist that I have a problem with, basically because they kind of preach towards everybody and expect everyone to believe the way they do,” a woman said.

“I live in Arizona, so we have a lot of Mormons and they interact like anybody else who is Catholic or Protestant, Baptist.  To each his own,” one man said.

Mitt Romney might be hurt by the reluctance of some Christian voters to support him, says Daniel Cox with the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington.

“Evangelicals are a vital part of the Republican primary constituency.  They are about one in four voters overall, and they make up a significant portion of the Republican primary electorate, particularly in places like Iowa and South Carolina and Florida,” said Cox.

But Cox also says there is a way for Romney to overcome some of those doubts. “And so if Romney can convince voters, particularly Evangelical voters in the Republican primaries, that he shares their political values, there is a good chance that the religious values may not be as important,” Cox said.

If he wins the Republican nomination and defeats President Barack Obama next year, Mitt Romney would become the country’s first Mormon president.

**In an earlier version of this story we incorrectly stated that the Mormon Church generally follows Christian precepts but adheres to its own founder and holy book separate from the Christian Bible.  This has been changed to a sentence stating: "Mormons believe in the Christian Bible but also follow teachings from their founder and a holy book separate from the Bible."  VOA regrets the error.

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