WASHINGTON – Most of America doesn't relate to Mitt Romney's religion but that may not matter in his race against President Barack Obama.
Those are the findings of a new Pew Research Center poll released Thursday, about a month before Republican Romney is set to become the first Mormon presidential nominee of a major political party.
Misgivings about the Mormon faith are widespread and persistent. Nearly two-thirds of non-Mormons said they see Romney's faith as very different from their own while just half consider it a Christian faith. Those numbers are little changed since Romney's first run for the presidency pushed Mormonism to the political forefront in 2007.
Despite those qualms, most voters who know that Romney is a devout Mormon say they are comfortable with his religious beliefs, and few voters reject his candidacy solely because of concerns about his faith.
Romney rarely discusses the details of his faith in public, preferring to focus on how it has helped him connect with people. In an interview Wednesday with NBC News, Romney again credited his religion with shaping his perspective and said he would talk about his experiences in the church. He did not address his spiritual beliefs.
"I'm — without question — I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I'm proud of that," Romney said. "Some call that the Mormon Church, that's fine with me. I'll talk about my experiences in the church. There's no question they've helped shape my perspective."
Views of Mormonism generally have held steady.
About six in 10 non-Mormons see it as very different from their own faith, and about half say they consider it to be a Christian religion, as Mormons themselves do. Among other Christians, black Protestants (66 percent) and white evangelicals (63 percent) are most apt to say they consider the faith sharply different from their own, while white evangelicals (42 percent) were most likely to say the Mormon faith is not a Christian one.
The poll, conducted jointly by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life and its Center for the People and the Press, found the public's knowledge about the religious beliefs of the two men vying for the presidency remains murky — even as two-thirds say it is important that a president have strong religious beliefs. Nearly three in 10 voters (29 percent) were unaware of or incorrect about the religious backgrounds of both candidates.
Sixty percent of registered voters know Romney is a Mormon, about the same as in a March poll. Nine percent think he follows another faith and 32 percent weren't sure. About eight in 10 who know of Romney's beliefs are either comfortable with them (60 percent) or say it doesn't matter (21 percent).
Discomfort with Romney's faith peaks among several groups not often on the same side in politics: white evangelical Protestants, black Protestants, atheists and agnostics. White evangelical Protestants broadly back Romney for president despite their misgivings about his religious background, while the other groups are far more likely to support Obama.
Overall, the poll found Obama holding a 50 percent to 43 percent lead over Romney.
Concerns about Romney's religion seem to dampen enthusiasm for his candidacy among some Republicans. Those Republicans who are aware of Romney's faith and are uncomfortable with it are far more tepid about his candidacy than Republicans who express no concerns about his faith.
That diminished enthusiasm could hurt Romney this fall. A candidate's strongest supporters often are the most likely to turn out to vote. The poll found Romney lagging behind Obama in strong support generally, with 32 percent strongly backing the president and 15 percent committed to Romney.
With regard to Obama, the poll found that misperceptions about his faith persist.
About half of registered voters correctly say Obama is a Christian. Seventeen percent misidentify him as a Muslim, 3 percent say he adheres to some other faith and 31 percent say they are unsure.
That's a slightly higher number misidentifying the president as a Muslim than in October 2008, during his first run for the presidency. Back then, 12 percent said they thought Obama was a Muslim. Nearly all of that increase is among Republicans, however, as the share in that group saying Obama is a Muslim has nearly doubled in that time.
Overall, those who are aware of the president's faith are broadly comfortable with it. Among those who know Obama is a Christian, 82 percent say they are comfortable with his faith. Only about one-fourth of those who identify him as a Muslim say they are comfortable with what they see as the president's religious beliefs.
The poll was conducted by telephone June 28-July 9 among a random national sample of 2,973 adults, including 2,373 registered voters. Results among all adults have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points, among registered voters, it is 2.3 points.