June 2nd, 2011
03:04 PM ET
Is America ready for a Mormon president?
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) - Mitt Romney’s campaign team knows that his Mormon faith scared off Republican voters the last time he ran for president.
But they believe a lot has changed in the last four years.
For starters, Romney is now much better known. The former Massachusetts governor campaigned hard in the 2008 primaries – even addressing his Mormonism head-on in a major speech — and has stayed in the public eye since, popping up on late-night talk shows and on cable news channels.
Romney’s Mormonism, the thinking goes, is less exotic than it was four years ago because the candidate is more familiar.
Plus, unlike in 2008, there’s a Democrat in the White House for Republican voters to unite against. The Romney camp hopes the Obama factor will boost support for a battle-tested candidate who’s shown he can raise the hundreds of millions of dollars White House bids require, regardless of the candidate’s religious affiliation.
And unlike the 2008 Republican primaries, when George W. Bush was in the White House and debate over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan loomed large, next year’s elections are poised to hang on the economy. Not a bad time, maybe, for a guy with a Harvard MBA and a career spent turning around financially troubled companies and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“The country’s really in a tough situation — the economy’s in a bad place and so people suddenly think that a guy with Mitt Romney’s capacity and experience looks a lot more attractive than he did four years ago,” says Mark DeMoss, a senior adviser to Romney’s campaign, which launched Thursday.
“That makes his faith much less of an issue than it was four years ago,” says DeMoss, who is tasked with helping Romney woo evangelical voters, a huge chunk of the GOP base and a constituency that’s historically been wary of Mormonism.
Whether DeMoss is right may make the difference in whether Romney, the current Republican frontrunner based on polls and fundraising, can actually win the Republican nomination and, ultimately, the White House.
But Romney may not be the only Mormon running for president. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is seriously flirting with a presidential bid.
Huntsman, Obama’s former ambassador to China, recently took a five-day swing through New Hampshire, site of the first-in-the-nation Republican primary, and has hired staff in South Carolina, another key primary state.
The prospect of a Huntsman campaign means the nation could see an unprecedented test of whether the GOP — and, perhaps, the rest of the country — is ready for a Mormon president in an era when candidates’ religious beliefs have become weighty campaign issues.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon Church is officially known, certainly seems eager for Mormonism to be less an issue in the presidential race than it was for Romney in 2008
“Recent media coverage seems to lean toward the conclusion that among many Americans, faith will be less of an issue in this election than it was in 2008,” church spokesman Michael Purdy said in a statement to CNN. “But it’s really for others to speculate on this.”
Public opinion polls suggest a lingering bias against Mormon candidates. A survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center found that a quarter of American adults admit to being less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate for president.
The survey found that resistance to Mormon candidates was even higher among two groups: liberal Democrats and evangelicals, who overwhelmingly vote Republican. One in three white evangelicals said they were less likely to support a Mormon candidate.
That creates a stiff headwind for Romney and Huntsman, given evangelicals’ primary power. In 2008, evangelicals accounted for 60 percent of Republican voters in Iowa, home to the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, and in South Carolina, whose primaries come hard on the heels of New Hampshire’s.
In 2008, Romney’s Mormonism “was a real factor in Iowa and South Carolina that predisposed many potential voters to never to consider Romney or hear his message,” said Gary Marx, who directed conservative outreach for Romney the last time he ran.
That year, Romney placed second in Iowa and fourth in South Carolina behind then-frontrunner Mike Huckabee – a Baptist preacher who won major evangelical support.
Though Mormons consider themselves to be Christians, many evangelicals consider the Latter-day Saints to be a cult.
Evangelicals object to the Mormon belief that the Book of Mormon is the revealed word of God and to such Mormon practices as proxy baptisms for the dead. Evangelicals and Mormons also compete for converts.
Many evangelical leaders have discouraged their followers from translating such differences into opposition to Mormon candidates. But that message isn’t always heeded.
“I don’t think it’s much of an issue among the leadership in evangelical circles,” Michael Farris, an influential evangelical activist, says of Mormon candidates. “But I don’t know if that is always true at the grassroots level.”
Richard Land, who directs public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest evangelical denomination, says evangelicals could coalesce around Romney but that the conditions would have to be just right.
“If Southern Baptists have a choice between an evangelical candidate, a Catholic and a Mormon and all three appear to be equally conservative and equally likely to beat Barack Obama, they’ll vote for the evangelical,” says Land, who has informally advised Romney on how to deal with his faith on the campaign trail.
“If there’s no such evangelical [in the] race, they’ll vote for the Catholic,” he says, “But if there’s no other candidate who’s likely to beat Obama, they’ll vote for the Mormon.”
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, an evangelical, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Catholic, are running for the GOP nomination.
Beyond theological challenges, conservative activists like Land and Farris say Romney faces skepticism among religious conservatives because he once supported abortion rights and signed a healthcare law in Massachusetts that critics say represented a dramatic government overreach.
But those close to Romney argue that Huckabee’s decision not to enter the 2012 race creates an opportunity for Romney to pick up more evangelical support. Or, they say, it could wind up splitting evangelical voters among multiple primary candidates, making evangelicals a less potent force.
DeMoss, a Christian public relations executive who also helped Romney with evangelical outreach in 2008, says one of the victories from the last campaign was that no big-name evangelical came out against Romney over his Mormonism. This time, DeMoss is working to get some evangelical leaders to go a step further and publicly support Romney.
After Romney’s 2008 defeat, one nationally known evangelical leader privately told DeMoss that he’d voted for Romney in the primaries.
“I remember thinking, it would have been nice if somebody else knew that,” says DeMoss, who believes such revelations would have made more evangelicals comfortable supporting a Mormon candidate.
Huntsman’s entry into the presidential race could make Mormonism less of an issue if it has a mainstreaming effect. But the two candidates’ religious affiliations could play out quite differently.
Romney has long been active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), having occupied Mormon leadership positions like bishop (the rough equivalent of a lay pastor) and stake president (someone who oversees groups of Mormon congregations).
“I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it,” Romney said in a December 2007 speech in which he addressed his Mormonism. “My faith is the faith of my fathers — I will be true to them and to my beliefs.”
Huntsman, like Romney, spent two years abroad as a Mormon missionary but has kept some distance from the LDS church. As governor of Utah, he loosened liquor laws that had been inspired by Mormon orthodoxy and broke with his church in signing a law allowing civil unions for gay couples.
In a recent television interview, Huntsman affirmed his Mormon faith but added that Mormonism is “a very diverse and heterogeneous cross-section of people. ... I probably add to that diversity somewhat.”
A Huntsman adviser who often deals with the media declined to respond to requests for comment.
Matthew Bowman, an editor at a Mormon studies journal called Dialogue, says Huntsman hails from a slightly younger generation of Mormons who are less defensive about their Mormonism.
“Huntsman is a Mormon who thinks of his faith not as something that separates him from American culture or as something he has to defend or explain away, which is what Romney did,” says Bowman. “Romney is always hyperaware of his Mormonism.”
That means Huntsman may face fewer questions about his Mormonism should he run.
The LDS church, for its part, says its policy is to steer clear of electoral politics. Some church observers say the controversy the church generated by supporting California’s 2008 gay marriage ban, Proposition 8, exacerbated its political reticence.
At the same time, the church has capitalized on increased attention paid to Mormonism - provoked by everything from Romney’s 2008 campaign to the current hit Broadway musical, “Book of Mormon” - with a succession of public awareness campaigns.
The church website Mormon.org, for example, was recently revamped with an eye toward educating non-Mormons about the religion. The site features video profiles of Mormons from different walks of life.
“The message of these ads is that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are your friends and neighbors,” says Purdy, the church spokesman. “We are professionals and tradespeople, artists and teachers and everything in between.”
Put another way, the message is that Mormons are normal, everyday Americans.
With the Republican primary race finally starting in earnest, the nation is about get a major glimpse into whether GOP voters agree.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.
We need to stop electing anybody of faith into our government. Religious fundamentalism is a huge threat to our nation and the well being of all our citizens.
You've obviously never studied American History. The founding fathers are rolling over in their graves!
Left Media already fire up...This guy is mormon!!! Really? well I prefer a mormon instant of Muslim!! My grandkids, 1011 are better that this actual president...he will be remembered as a community organizer>
When you write a comment without any substance, you can at least make an effort to proofread to add the tiniest shred of credibility.
I never have and never will vote for a candidate who belongs to a religion that believes that women exist primarily to make more members of their religion.
All of the major monotheisms believe that women ought to remain barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. Mormonism is one of the few religions which openly glorifies their stance on the subjugation of women.
We've had plenty of moron presidents. What? Oh m-o-r-m-o-n! Never mind.
Almost anything would be better tyhan the Communist President we have now.
communist?? check you head man
Evangelicals: I bet you don't appreciate when the atheists assert how stupid, misguided, wrong, etc. that you are, does it? You are all a bunch of radicals, right? Be nice if they simply respected your beliefs and understood you another person.
Doesn't make much sense when you say such things about Mormons, either.
So that's justification?
American is not ready for another Republican president.
Who cares about religion?
We just had a Moron, G.W. Bush....oh sorry I was in Tea Party misspelling mode. No, Mr. Magic Underpants cult member can not and should not be President.
I have never voted for a Democrat in my life and I cannot stand Obama, however, if Mitt gets the nomination, Obama gets my vote.
Why don't you just "write in" George W. Bush and be done with it?
Or better yet - just write in "Jesus".
@Mike V – They are too afraid they might have just elected a Mexican...
After seeing how vigilant the Mormon Church was in California politics, I think this is a religion to be wary of. Not to mention, that their views on Blacks is still an ugly part of their religion. Let's face it, it is just a really kooky religion and one that few people outside of it can relate to. As for Mitt personally, he is just too flip-floppy to be trusted!
You Said: "After seeing how vigilant the Mormon Church was in California politics, I think this is a religion to be wary of. Not to mention, that their views on Blacks is still an ugly part of their religion."
Those are certainly some issues to be considered, in one's decision making process (IMHO).
Sigh...here we go again. I can't believe how inane and pointless the comments are on articles like this. I have no hope for our country when we can't engage in reasonable, rational, and open dialogue on real issues rather than simply stooping to name-calling and snide remarks. Please, if you don't have anything substantial to add to the conversation, keep your comment to yourself. If you can do something other than sterotype an entire religion, make fun of a man's underwear, or calling people "morons," then we'd like to hear your thoughts.
It is entirely fair and accurate to say that Mormonism is OBJECTIVELY less true than Christianity, in that it essentially Christianity plus some additional specious claims about history, archaeology, and anthropology. Should a candidate's religion inform one's decision to support that person? Only if one actually cares about the true state of the world we live in, and endeavors to hold beliefs that have real purchase on the solid ground of facts, and understands that beliefs cannot be held for reasons such as comfort, utility, or attractiveness. "It is time we realized that to presume knowledge where one has only pious hope is a species of evil." ~Sam Harris.
"OBJECTIVELY less true"
How about, "at least, equally false"?
Speaking of religion,maybe Jimmy Swaggart should run for president. I don't know why but religion brings out the worst in people.
giggle giggle...would be real funny if it were not true.
Who would that be. Romney has a snowballs chance in Hades of winning the nomination much less they presidency. But then when did that bother CNN I mean they are almost as republican corporate controlled as fox.
If we can elect a muslim, then we can elect a cultist.
Very nice. I love the humor. Thanks for the laugh. Seriously, I liked the wit. Cudos.
Never. It's bad enough that we're forced to vote for Christers.
NO, NO, NO,
He believes that ONE NATION UNDER GOD WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL IS ONLY APPLIES IF YOUR MORMON.
Mitt Romney attempts to denounce the HealthCareAct show what an accomplishment Obama has made towards a universal health care for all Americans So Go Obama Go, Out innovate and Out Compete all these fake GOP candidates.