Do Americans Have Faith In Romney?

Mitt Romney headshot, former Massachusetts Governor, photo 2/7/2007
AP / file

Monday night is family night for Brian and Jennifer Williams and their four children. They gather in the kitchen of their Maryland home to prepare food for a local homeless shelter.

Later at home, they sing and pray.

Family is central to the Williams' religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; the Mormons. While their family life seems comfortable and familiar, the beliefs and practices of their Mormon faith are now in the spotlight, because one of their own is a credible contender for the presidency.

Mitt Romney, the 60-year-old former governor of Massachusetts, leads among Republican candidates in most polls in Iowa and New Hampshire and often fields questions about his religion.

"I'm not running as a Mormon, and I don't think ... and I get a little tired of coming on a show like yours and having it all about Mormon," Romney said during an interview on Aug. 2.

But if the surveys are right, a significant portion of the American electorate does not see the Mormon faith as just another branch of Christianity, reports CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield. In fact, they see some of its history and beliefs as unusual enough to give them pause about putting a Mormon in the White House.

Some of this doubt is likely rooted in the past; the recent past.

Most world religions have histories that go back thousands of years. The Mormon faith was born much more recently; in 1827, when Joseph Smith claimed to have uncovered a set of golden plates in upstate New York which told of ancient prophets in the New World.

Mormons believe in Jesus Christ as their savior. They also believe that Jesus had siblings and that after his resurrection, he preached in the Americas. They believe the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Mo., near Kansas City. Also, they once embraced the practice of polygamy.

Despite their differences, Mormons say they are Christians.

"We teach the Bible. We believe the Bible. We are firm believers in Jesus Christ," says Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican who has represented Utah in the Senate for more than 30 years.

There are now 15 Mormons in Congress. Three are Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But they all come from Utah, the center of American Mormonism, or nearby states.

In a national election, Mormonism may be a key issue for Mitt Romney, especially among evangelicals.

"When they learn some things about what Mormons believe, many of those things seem very strange, because they're out of their own experience," says John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

"It does make us unique, but not because we're different from our neighbors, but because when we're asked those questions, we have a unique, truly fascinating, truly American story to kind of tell," Brian Williams says.

John F. Kennedy famously confronted doubts about his Catholic faith in 1960 by inviting skeptics to question him. Should Romney's campaign flourish, say his advisers, he will need to do the same.