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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. Marcus Randolph

    That should not be an issue for Mr. Romney. As I remember, Kennedy being Catholic was much more controverial and he was elected of course. I'm surprised CNN would make that a story in this day and time.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • Charles Mills

      As a recovered Catholic... at least THEY are no crazier than any regular Christian. And even the regular ones like to try and stick their beliefs into everything they do regardless of how many NON believers it affects. To them, that's just right cuz God is on their side (famous reason for every horrendous act known to mankind). It's bad enough to put anyone in such a position of power when they hold such nonsensical beliefs but with a Mormon, that Crazy Belief system is escalated a thousand fold. And you see how they run a state, imagine what one of them would do once they got REAL power!

      June 2, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Kim

      It's different to vote for a man who might believe in a different path to God than Protestants believe than it is to vote for a man who believes that he will inherit his own planet and become a god, just like our Creator. Not only that, but to vote for a man whose religion is highly secretive and has a history of discriminating against Blacks and women and non-Mormons in general. As a Christian, I'd readily vote for a qualified candidate of Muslim or Jewish faith, but not a Mormon. And my opinion is based on extensive research of Mormonism.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  2. Charles Mills

    Surely this question is a joke. Like, Mormon with an M right? The crazy ones that say the only path to heaven for a woman is by her husbands side? Oh yeah, that's a GREAT idea.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • JSS

      That's not true! Women can achieve the same "celestial glory" as men whether they are married or not.

      June 2, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  3. laughathuman

    Mormonisms is a religion that revolves around the white male. This country does not need that. We need balance. Bird doesn't fly with out a right and left wing.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • JSS

      So untrue and unfair. Mormons celebrate diversity.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  4. Bao

    Mormonism like every other religion is a fraud. The only difference is you can actually look at newspaper articles from the 1820s and see that he was labeled a scam artist before he even founded LDS. If we had newspapers 2,000 years ago I'm sure the people purporting the validity of the bible would have promptly been labeled lunatics and thrown in the loony bin.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • Cando

      Any newspaper articles on you?

      June 2, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • Hillcrester

      I agree. The closest we can come to imagining what was happening around the Jesus-time is embodied by the rock-opera Jesus Christ Superstar. I know Sarah Palin modeled her campaign after it, escept she's not reluctantly being dragged along but driving the bus.

      June 2, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  5. Mike

    I hope (and pray) the likelihood of an illegal alien (as in from Mars!) stands a better chance of becoming president! The religion is waaaay too far "out there"!!!

    June 2, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  6. Jason

    Mormons, meh, I'm still not that used to their doctrine but as long as Romney doesn't shove his ideals down our throat then I don't see the prob in him being a Mormon. Plus, Mormons are still better than scientologists.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  7. joel palmer

    Have you actually read what mormons believe??? It will shock the living hell out of anyone. Too weird and a cult at that

    June 2, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • Dave

      You obviously haven't.

      June 2, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • Charles Mills

      No Dave you moron, he clearly HAS. Majic Jammies and Opressed women and all.

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

      What's so weird about us? We believe in a Heavenly Father and his son Jesus Christ who dies on the cross. We believe in an afterlife and that families can be together forever. We share a lot in common with many Christian denominations (even if they don't think so) and we love our fellow man. Doesn't sound that weird to me. No one tells me when to pee, I do what I want when I want and OMG, I don't always go to church on Sunday. Mmmm, cult? I don't think so.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  8. Kasi

    Who cares what his religion is! This is America! At least he has faith and believes in God and Jesus Christ! Obama is black...who cares? JFK was Catholic...who cares? I am Mormon and I wouldnt vote for him just because he is LDS...thats not important. What IS important is who is going to find our traditional values that this country was founded on, get the debt under control, and have a right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness! Let's get rid of the hate and focus on this country and how lost it is right now!

    June 2, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • brambo

      preach it!! love it and agree!!!

      June 2, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • Charles Mills

      So... I am curious... are you actually saying that if he did NOT believe in Jesus and was NOT a Christian, THEN it would something that would prevent you from voting for him?

      June 2, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • BILL

      Well put....exactly....people have this misconception that Mormons have 10 wives and are some crazy cult. The man has been to one woman for several years and has 5 sons with her. He believe in family values and that all that matters/

      June 2, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  9. Concerned American

    It is just too sad to hear the hatred of a country who when 911 happened all we thought of was each other and now all I hear is such rude and inaccurate comments of people. I think before you decide to respond about something just study up on it and really learn about it before you go off about religion that you really know nothing about. You may think you do but to really know you must go to the source and look at morman.org or LDS.org. There is nothing at all that shows that it is a cult. I should know I am LDS and I walk among all of you and I love you even if you have the wrong view of us. I don't ever talk just awful things about any religion. I resect all religions and I know that the majoraty of the LDS are the same. It doesn't matter the religion of one person it just matters of thier charater and who they are and what they stand for. I think if you have a good heart and know that you can help try to fix and change the world for good what does it matter what religion you are. I have voted many times for others with some religious backgrounds and some not so religious. Just please try to be the best person you can be and if we all did that then boy we can do anything. I know it. I am sorry if you feel so much hate for someone you don't even know. I may not of voted for Obama but I respect himefor who he is and I promised myself not to trash him. I have made that my goal with all people running. I study about them and thier views and judge them for what I feel is best for me.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • Charles Mills

      Well surprise surprise. Clearly you, being an LDSer, have a clean and uncompromised point of view.

      June 2, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • Hillcrester

      The personal characteristic most likely to keep someone from being elected in to be a non-believer (or at least to admit that you are). To its discredit this is nominally a deeply religious country–in spite of the dramatically non-religious things many of those "believers"actually do. As usual, Europe leads on this, with formerly-Catholic countries that are now primarily populated by non-believers who are, of course, also non-observant.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  10. joel palmer

    Sure and then we can have Mitt and his six wives in the White House...right

    June 2, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • brambo

      no different than clinton and his 4…

      June 2, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  11. Guyp

    They still do not not acknowledge that Native Americans are anything more than dogs. Same as the Muslims think of Christians.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • JSS

      What!?! That is the most out there lie I have heard yet. Actually, we have great respect for Native American's and their ancestry.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  12. ICantEven

    "Is America ready for a Mormon president?" lol... NO. And hopefully we're never ready for a Mormon president.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  13. joel palmer

    If you think the liquor laws in Utah are weird, wait to you see the underwear

    June 2, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • JSS

      What's the matter with them? Should we tease the Jews about their Kippahs and Tallits now?

      June 2, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
  14. HotSnax

    heh.. belonging to a cult that has sworn the overthrow of the US government? ya.. that'll go over well...

    June 2, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  15. joel palmer

    Americans will elect a guy who belongs to a cult right after pigs fly

    June 2, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
    • brambo

      hey, we just elected a Muslim – i think this country's ready for results.

      June 2, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • Charles Mills

      Sorry this was for ButRambo... Dude, you are a moron lol!

      June 2, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
  16. Olurotimi

    America is not ready for the run-again, lose-again maestro Romney. I don't care if Palin takes her bus tour to the moon. Gingrich is a freak show per all those women in his life. He reminds me of Berlusconi. I'm sorry I don't like bling bling that much.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  17. lefty avenger

    Who cares if he's mormon. He's a corporate shark republican who gave Massachusetts universal health care. Something all of us wanted for all our states that will never happen. Then Romney waffles and says he didn't do it, bad idea. This was his only redeeming quality!

    June 2, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • Cando

      Yep, your a lefty alright.

      June 2, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • Charles Mills

      Better a lefty than a moron.

      June 2, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • Monster Zero

      Yeah, your only redeeming quality for old Mitt is the healthscare program and it pretty much bankrupted the State of Taxachussetts...what a great man!

      I'd still take Mitt over Obama hands down!

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

      That's one of several "I was for it before I was/am against it" issues that make him an opportunist who will say anything . . . I wouldn't want a "job-creating" President to be a person whose fortune was made by buying companies and laying off/firing tons of employees. He is a hypocrite–a McCain-like figure who had a decent political agenda until he smelled the possibility of the GOP nomination and twisted himself into a pretzel to try to win the extremists' approval. You can't trust him.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  18. Gullible christians

    No way! 70% of voters are gullible christians, and thus this mormon is not gonna win. Plain and simple.

    June 2, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  19. count floyd

    The real question is "are Americans are ready for a MORON president named Sarah?"

    June 2, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • Sarah Sucks

      hahahahaha

      June 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  20. linda1965

    With or without the magic underpants?

    June 2, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • Charles Mills

      They need a LIKE button for that 🙂

      June 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
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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.

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