WASHINGTON — News broke Thursday that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio was baptized as a Mormon at age 8, when his family lived in Las Vegas. A few years later, he converted to Catholicism.
Yet Rubio's religious profile is even more complicated than that, given his close ties to an evangelical church in Miami.
It's a mix — a "faith journey," as his office put it — that has some wondering whether the rising Republican is trying to be all things to all people, and what other surprises may be in his past.
He's a practicing Catholic but enjoys the sermons of a Southern Baptist-affiliated church, his office said, adding that he has long crossed into both faiths.
The revelation that Rubio, 40, was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints drew quick comparisons to another Mormon, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In just over a year in office, Rubio has vaulted to the top of the shortlist of running mates.
Pundits questioned whether two Mormons can share a ticket, overlooking that Rubio belonged to the faith for only a few years as a child. Still, the never-before-told history caused a stir. Rubio's "Mormon surprise," read a banner on CNN.
The Mormon roots were teased Thursday morning by the publisher of Rubio's forthcoming memoir, An American Son, while a more detailed telling came from the news website BuzzFeed.
Rubio's family was introduced to Mormonism when they moved to Las Vegas in the late 1970s, where relatives were already living and involved in the church, BuzzFeed reported.
"It wasn't long before the Rubios were sitting down with Mormon missionaries, reading the Book of Mormon and preparing for baptism," the story read.
The story, quoting Rubio's cousin, said Rubio's father, Mario, did not join because the church's strict moral code clashed with his work as a bartender.
The family left the Mormon church by the time Rubio was 12, according to Rubio's office, and he received First Communion in the Catholic Church a year later. After returning to Miami, Rubio was confirmed, and he was married in the church.
But as he got older, Rubio started to attend Christ Fellowship in Miami, a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Though he had substantial debt, due to mortgages and student loans, Rubio gave about $50,000 to the church over a period of years last decade. He also gave to the Catholic Church, his office said.
In the 2002 Florida House Clerk's Manual, Rubio described himself as Catholic. Two years later he listed himself as Baptist, then two years after that, he identified himself as Catholic.
"Around 2005 Marco began to return to his Catholic roots," according to a time line provided by the senator's office, which added, "He enjoys the sermons and the excellent children's ministry at Christ Fellowship, and still attends often."
In Washington, Rubio has said he attends daily Mass.
The dual nature — is he Catholic or Protestant? — has caught the eye of observers.
"Is Marco Rubio talking out of both sides, the better to court the Catholic and the evangelical votes?" Eric Giunta, a Catholic columnist for the online publication Renew America, wrote after the November 2010 election that catapulted Rubio onto the national stage as a U.S. senator. "Or is he just one more victim of the religious indifferentism that marks so much of today's practical Catholicism, thanks to decades of spiritual malnourishment suffered at the hands of wicked, inept or lazy prelates? It's a question worth asking, and here's hoping Rubio soon answers it."
There are several differences between Catholics and Southern Baptists, including that the latter do not recognize the authority of the pope or view communion as the body and blood of Christ.
Still, it is increasingly common for Hispanics to participate in multiple faiths, said Timothy Matovina, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.
"A lot of the recent working-class immigrants, they go to evangelical church because they like the preaching, but when it comes time for a baptism or burial or First Communion, they say it's got to be Catholic," he said. "They don't see any dissonance." He added, however, that among older generation Catholic Cubans, straddling such lines would not be a popular move.
Last year, activists who question Rubio's ability to be president (his parents were not U.S. citizens when he was born in Miami in 1971) exposed how he had incorrectly said his parents fled Cuba after Fidel Castro took over; in fact, they left before. Rubio corrected the error on his official Senate biography.
Rubio's spokesman said he had always planned to write about Mormonism in his book, out in October. The detail was included in tidbits the publisher released Thursday to the Miami Herald.
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]