Is America ready for a Mormon president?
Mitt Romney announcing his presidential candidacy in New Hampshire on Thursday.
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.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Mitt Romney • Mormonism • Politics

soundoff (3,046 Responses)
  1. Kool Aid

    Primary Election: The South and the Midwest will not...I repeat NOT nominate a Mormon.
    General Election: if I am wrong on the Primaries, then the same demographic comes into play–which is worse to these two groups; a black man with an African name or a Massachusetts Yankee/Mormon? Notice I am not talking about actual issues–they won't matter to this particular demographic...not one bit.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  2. EddyL

    HELL NO!

    June 2, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  3. TJeff1776

    Cults, Mormon books, many wives, dead baptisms, etc etc....who tha hell cares. The Protestants and others cut loose on John Kennedy a week before his election. BUT the American majority had passed through their anti-Catholicism historical
    phase. Obviously, Massachusetts did too with Romney and was better off for it. One of Romney's most outstanding accomplishments was his Health Reform feat. No longer do MOST of the slackers in Massachusetts simply walk into an
    emergency room and get it free. I only wish Romney had embraced his own Health Reform bill. That still took guts and I would be willing to bet he's probably one of the few NOT on the national health organizations' payola list. And there must
    be something to a person that Sarah Palin is against.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  4. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    Wrong question, are Republicans ready for a Mormon knowing that Mitt Romney is the most qualified but they claim it's only because of his healthcare bill. They will never admit their prejudice against Romney or any other Mormon they'd rather have an idiot like Palin.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  5. BeckFastPaws

    What we need is a Pagan President who will finally put an end to religion interfering in politics.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  6. Sara

    Really? Some of you are down right bigots... Has ANY president in the past pushed their religion on to the entire American population? No... Is that going to change just because someone with a misunderstood religion steps into office? You're an idiot if you think so. Someone can be an American and a Mormon and still be able to lead an entire nation with mix beliefs... You're not going to be forced or even encouraged to become a Mormon. I'm sad for you if you think otherwise is true. Maybe you should step out of your little box and learn about those around you from a reliable source. The LDS church is the fastest growing church in the WORLD with *millions* of members. Just because you don't understand it and don't take the time to understand it does not mean it is a cult. http://www.mormon.org
    Grow up!

    June 2, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • tyler

      good statement, a lot of dumb people are on here world would be a better place with no religion guess what im a republican

      June 2, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • MindiK

      I'm from Utah and the Mormon church dictates everything that goes on politically here. They will force their way into Mitt administration's policies in some behind closed doors way. Look how they did it in CA w/Prop 8.

      No other religion has a Prophet that they have to adhere to AND is based (and always has been) in the US. The Pope does not have the stronghold politically here. You get excommunicated for going against the ways of the Prophet and Mormon "church".

      June 2, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
  7. Matthew

    Dum dum dum dum dum....

    June 2, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  8. David S.

    Hey we had a President now who never worked a job in his life and is a closet socialist with far left leaning beliiefs, after that I'd take a Mormon anyday.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
  9. Jobu

    Wrong question! I could care less if he's Catholic, Mormon, Southern Baptist or Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster!
    Right Question: is America ready to go back to the same failed GOP policies that brought this country to the brink at the worst of the Financial Crisis?

    June 2, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  10. RC

    No way. How much did the Mormon Church interfere with other states elections when it came morality issues? A follower of that religion would be obligated to do the same thing. Sorry, but his background should be an automatic disqualification for running for President.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  11. FU

    One religious wacko is as good as the next. I can't wait for people to find out how cuckoo mormons are. They have "magical underwear" for instance...google it, I'm not joking...

    June 2, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  12. Mike

    Lets make this simple and short NO!!!!!!!

    June 2, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  13. garyp

    Did you mean moron for president?

    June 2, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • FU

      Meet the new guy...same as the old guy...

      June 2, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • marylanddemocrat

      We already have a moron for president.

      June 2, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  14. HWR

    Hey Phil.

    I'm with you. Religion sucks, its only a fantasy and believe, not realiity.
    SO many hide behind that, then when they screw up, oh, I'll just thank gawd and all will be ok LOL


    June 2, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  15. Pam

    Come live in Utah as a non-Mormon, then you will know that you don't want a Mormon president.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  16. HWR

    Mormons = Lying – Thiiefen – Hypocrites

    June 2, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Zimbo

      Reading from your resume again?

      June 2, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • ScottK

      Religious people are fond of lies and liars so they will of course vote for someone like them.
      "A lie-to-children is a lie, often a plat itude, which may use euphemism(s), which is told to make an adult subject acceptable to children. Common examples include "The stork brought you" (in reference to childbirth) and the existence of Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny." – Wiki

      June 2, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
    • Artist


      Mormons = Lying – Thiiefen – Hypocrites

      Non mormons in Utah might agree with you. lol

      June 2, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
  17. rich

    @Erik – yes, I would prefer the president to be an atheist.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Erich

      That would be the ultimate fulfillment of the Apocalypse in book of Revelations.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
  18. mick

    Please, he might as well be a Scientologist. It's a cult full of ridiculous beliefs. Google the religion. 1. Mitt Romney and Mormons believe that women exist only to make more members of their religion. 2. All of their beliefs are tied to 'magic' tablets which are invisible. 3. They don't believe in Christianity or any other forms of religion. That's a huge NO No!!!!!!

    June 2, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • Truth

      How does anyone as ignorant as you function? Hopefully the electorate isn't or we'll end up with someone like Oral Roberts as president. Jeez, you're a stupid fool.

      June 2, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • J

      Do you truly believe everything you read on google? LOL You must be so uneducated; did you finish high school?
      Your statment gos to showes me just how uneducated this country is.. How about trying to learn what mormons believe by asking a mormon, not googling it, only to frind crap that someone like you posted..
      Now i know why this country is going to hell. We have the most uneducated ignorant people then anyother country..

      June 2, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • myk

      @ mick..

      It amazed me how that fingers of yours work, punching the keyboards with out that thing that sends impulses to make them work.

      That cranium at the end of your neck doesn't serve its true purpose, it's just there to grow you some here.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:07 pm |
  19. What?

    What kind of question is this? Ready for a Mormon? We have a black president who's religion is continually in question and you ask if we are READY for a Mormon?

    June 2, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • PK

      The same was said when Kennedy, a Catholic, became president. We're all still here, believing what we choose.

      June 2, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Ralf The Dog

      Obama's religion is only questioned by stupid people. Stupid people do not count.

      June 2, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  20. Phil

    I'm ready for an atheist president. I hate it when they hide behind their faith as if that makes them a better person.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • redd52

      hate to tell ya phil, but this amazing country that you're freely living in was founded on men who believed fully in God. Maybe try Korea?

      June 2, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Pirate

      LOL – I was about to post the same thing!

      June 2, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • thrud

      @redd52 . . . Hate to tell ya, but South Korea is mostly Christian. They've even elected Christian presidents. There is even a Catholic Cathedral there, a large Eastern Orthodox Church there, thousands upon thousands of Evangelical churches there and even an LDS (Mormon) Temple there. There are Confucianists, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims and Hindus there. Koreans are genetically heterogeneous, but like the rest of the world, South Koreans are religiously pluralistic with even a proportionate amount of Atheists and Agnostics.

      June 2, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
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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.