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.
No, not ready, ever
I have a few friends who are Mormon. They are honest, hard working people!
So was your run-of-the-mill Nazi
If we voted for a Muslim last time then I think we can vote for a Mormon this time.
Andrew, you bet we're ready for a mormon after this unamerican. 2012 can't come fast enough. Hope and change – yes, we can elect a mormon. At least I know he has the best interest of Americans.
Mormon President? Hell NO! It's just another example of poor Judgement. Out of all the nutty religions, he chose that one! Please. Let's elect the first Atheist President. It's about time people come to grips w/ the fact, "There is no God kids!"
When was the last time the topic, "Is there a God", ever effected the policies of our Govt? i don't recall Obama or Bush directing tax dollars to this topic. I think you are making a big deal over nothing.
I could never vote for a Mormon ! Mr. Romeny has and is back pedaling about his health reform in Mass. just what we need another president that invents, changes truth at his whim. Besides Mormonism is not Christian as Mr Romney states. Look at their doctrine and history
I'd vote for a Mormon – and I'm a Catholic.... and the liberal, bias media makes me sick. I know several Mormons and they are honest, hard working, and very respectful people. I can't say the same about some members of the liberal, bias media now-a-days. Get a life and report on real news – fair news – or get the heck out of the business. You are not wanted or needed in this country.
The problem with Mormons is that they force they religion on others. They use methods which are inappropriate and irritating. If they stop that then I do not have a problem with them. I am concerned that if Mitt gets elected then he will try to push for Mormon agenda on the rest of the Americans, and I do not want that. I want to stay what I am and I do not want two young people coming and ringing my bell every now and then.
Just to be clear: there is no place for media in the country?
Anyone who is not worried about a mormon in the whitehouse is either a mormon or knows nothing about the cult.
Get a clue folks! This is a big deal will blow up once this crazy salt lake city cult suff comes to light. Oh, and be prepared for some serious back paddeling and doubletalk from romney the moment the first question is asked. Is this what we want for a prez? Not on my watch!
I'm starting to realize just how sad our society has become. If any of you foul mouthed ignorant fools have an once of love for your nation, you will vote for someone who can lead us in the right direction! A 'work resume' is what matters with the presidential election, NOT religion.
Really? Would you vote for a Scientology candidate? For a Wiccan candidate?
I doubt it.
Mormonism is just wacko (not that the other religions aren't wacko too, but it's a whole 'nother level of wierdness).
Know anything about Joseph Smith. I highly recommend the South Park episodes about him.
If you're suggesting that voting Republican, is a vote for someone who will lead us in the right direction, you're out of your damn mind. It's become my duty to remind everyone that you can thank BUSH and CHENEY for the horrible mess we can't get out of! Those S.O.B's and their cronies have never made so much money while we struggle to make ends meet! REPUBLICAN'T
Please no cult members as the US President. Thanks general voting public!
You do realize that Christianity is a cult of Judaism. That would mean you wouldn't have wanted any of our Presidents..right?
The last time I visited SLC the taxi driver boasted about him knowing his wife's secret temple name while she didn't know his. Go ahead, elect Mitt Romney and let’s get into the world of secret temple names and beliefs.
considering that many of our forefathers were Masonic and used "secret" passwords, etc, you are an idiot
We are already there – look at what we have now in the Oval Office.
Are secret temples a problem for you? Then I'm glad you've never heard about Skull and Bones at Yale. Ignorance is bliss.
Forefathers were not members of cults and recieved orders from some unknown religeous leader on top of the secretive hierarchy. It would have been better for you to educate yourself on history than calling others names. Shows what kind of person you are.
The country has proven religion doesn't matter.
We are free to practice whatever religion we want and it doesn't matter what religion a person is.
The fact of ones religious beliefs being an issue is profoundly ignorant. If anyone has read the Mormon belifis, they would know that they believe in Jesus Christ and God. Furthermore, we have a practicing Muslim in office now, but that doesn't make him a bad president due to his beliefs, just his inexperience.
Mormons also believed that God was a mortal man that walked the earth and had relations with Mary, who was literally pregnant with their son, Jesus. Mormons believe that if you are a good Mormon, you will inherit your own planet in space that you and your eternally-fertile wife will populate with your own believers. This is what Mormons actually subscribe to, google it.
I bet Timothy is also (still) a birther.
That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. How many times do you have to be told that the President is not a Muslim before you'll stop spouting off with this nonsense? Oh wait, that's right, no amount would suffice. You'd actually have to listen first.
Bemused where did you get your information? So if I google aliens and something comes up about aliens taking people and probing us....does that make it true?
I will never vote for a Mormon for President. Ever. The Church will exploit someone in a position of power that is weak minded enough to believe in that nonsense.
i agree. weak minded people believe in religion. and joseph smith created the bible reading from a hat. btw what do you all want for christmas this year?
You mean like the Pope exploited JFK when he was Pres?
santa claus, I liked that south park episode!
Who cares about what religion one is or lack of. He's going to lose anyways.
"Put another way, the message is that Mormons are normal, everyday Americans."
Who believe the lost tribe of Israel migrated to North American and became the Indians. Who believe the tall tales of a guy previously convicted of being a fraud. Who sometimes wear sacred underwear.
Their normalcy isn't what people have a problem with.
Learn the facts before you spew ridiculous charges. There is too much wrong with your comment to pick it apart completely; however Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS Church, was NEVER convicted of ANYTHING. He was harassed by many false claims, but he was acquitted on all of them.
if we get a mormon before an atheist then I will have lost all faith in the ability of the people of this country to make rational decisions.
lol no kidding
Jesus Christ for president. No conflict in relgion. Gooooooo, Jesus!!!
I don't see what the difference would be between a voting for a Mormon Candidate versus a Church of Scientology Candidate. They both subscribe to religions made up in America by Americans. One has the benefit of being made up more than a hundred years after the other, but they are both based on science fiction.
Did they really have to point that out??? I mean, did they point out last time that Obama was half muslim??? I voted for Obama last time this coming up election he aint getting my vote.