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Mitt Romney: proudly, quietly Mormon

The former governor of Massachusetts is a Mormon in full. But, facing a wary public, he has played his faith cautiously on the presidential campaign trail.

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Romney is keenly aware of this fact and has organized "faith and values steering committees" – one national, several statewide – made up of prominent supporters from a range of faiths. The committees advise the campaign on values-related issues and grass-roots outreach.

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In addition, Romney has sought to carve out an image of openness toward the public and press. He has held more than 100 "ask-me-anything"-style events in early primary states and has sat for countless interviews with journalists, some of whom have posed the most intimate of questions regarding his religious practices and personal life. Usually Romney takes them in good humor, though in a recent talk- radio interview, he got testy when the host pushed hard on his faith. Romney also defers to church headquarters in Salt Lake City when questioned on Mormon beliefs, such as those about Jesus' past and future ministries on the American continent.

Romney's approach to the press extended to his home on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire last month, when he invited about 30 journalists for an off-the-record barbecue with his family and campaign staff. (Reporters paid for their own meals.) Most of his immediate family was there – four of his five sons, their wives, and the 10 grandchildren. (Note to those keeping score: No. 11 is on the way.) Oldest son Tagg offered rides around the lake in a motorboat.

If part of the point was to show family values in action, it worked. Among Romney backers, the hope seems to be that eventually the Mormon theme will play out and the media will move on. For now, though, it's still a matter of public concern, or at least curiosity. In public forums, Romney's approach is to steer his rhetoric away from the specifics of his faith and toward the common ground of values, God, and patriotism – themes that play especially well among GOP primary voters.

At a recent "Ask Mitt Anything" forum in Indianola, Iowa, the first comment from the audience centered on Romney's faith.

"You know, one of the great things about this country of ours is that we don't choose our leaders based on what church they go to. We care about the values they have," Romney began, his wife and son Josh at his side. "And if you want to learn something about my values, you can meet my wife and my son and you can see that we have American values like anyone else in this country.

"And I'm really proud of the fact that wherever I go, people say, 'We love the fact that you're a person of faith, you believe in God, you believe in the Bible, you believe that Jesus Christ is the savior of the world.' Those are my beliefs, they form who I am. And one of the great elements of America is that we accept people of all faiths as long as they share our values and our love for this great country."

But even in that answer, in mentioning Jesus Christ, Romney is treading on sensitive territory. Many Protestants and Roman Catholics do not recognize Mormons as Christian because the church does not adhere to the common view of the Holy Trinity. The Mormon Church, instead, sees God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost as three separate beings – God and Jesus having human form – who collectively make up the Godhead.

Another objection is to the church's use of additional scriptures, such as the Book of Mormon. Richard John Neuhaus, a prominent conservative Catholic priest, calls Mormonism "a false religion." The Southern Baptist Convention instructs its members to view Mormonism as a cult.

In addition, Mormons' past practice of polygamy – disavowed by the church in 1890 – and the HBO series "Big Love," which features a modern-day polygamous family in Utah, do Romney no favors. Ditto Romney's own well-known ancestral history of polygamy. Mormons' successful efforts to win converts also make evangelical Christians uncomfortable, even as the LDS Church loses members to evangelical proselytizing. Some non-Mormons worry that a President Romney would be the ultimate missionary, making the church more attractive worldwide.

This fall, an independently produced documentary called "A Mormon President" – examining the history of church founder Joseph Smith's presidential campaign – will bring yet more attention to politics and Mormonism.

The speech