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Romney's Religion Could be Factor in US Presidential Race

Republican presidential candidate and businessman Herman Cain (l) speaks as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney listens during a Republican presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, October 11, 2011.
Republican presidential candidate and businessman Herman Cain (l) speaks as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney listens during a Republican presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, October 11, 2011.

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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 public opinion poll.  Most experts consider Romney the frontrunner for the Republican Party's presidential nomination next year.  But in recent weeks, Romney has been on the defensive about his religion and the issue came into focus during the latest Republican candidates' debate in Las Vegas.  Romney is a member of the Mormon Church, which generally follows Christian precepts, but adheres to its own founder and holy book separate from the Christian Bible.

The intersection of politics and religion in the 2012 race for the White House came into sharp focus because of comments from an evangelical Christian pastor, Robert Jeffress, who supports Texas Governor Rick Perry for president.

Jeffress opposes Mitt Romney because of his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon Church.

"In my estimation, Mormonism is a cult," said Jeffress.  "And it would give credence to a cult to have a Mormon candidate."

Mormons generally follow Christian precepts, but adhere to their own church founder, Joseph Smith, and a holy book, the Book of Mormon, which is separate from the Christian Bible.

Jeffress says Mormons are moral people, but are not part of mainstream Christianity - a view many Mormons dispute.

The religious issue was raised during the Republican debate in Las Vegas this week, when Rick Perry was asked about Jeffress's comments.

"That individual expressed an opinion," said Perry.  "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 [President Barack Obama]."

Mitt Romney said that using any kind of religious test for political candidates is wrong.

"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," noted Romney.

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

That was backed up by a recent sampling of opinion in Los Angeles.  However, Romney might be hurt by the reluctance of some Christian voters to support him, says Daniel Cox with the Public Religion Research Institute here in Washington.

"Evangelicals are a vital part of the Republican primary constituency," said Cox.  "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."

But Cox says there is a way for Romney to overcome some of those doubts.

"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 explained.

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

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