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. Falcon

    Now if Romney was a Muslim who beleived in Sharia law then I would have a problem and he would be unsutiable to hold office .

    June 2, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  2. Santa Claus

    It's pathetic that everyone argues about which invisible person is real and where he comes from. Something i used to do when i was a child. BTW what do you all want for Christmas?

    June 2, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • Unafiliated

      Amen... er... I mean... I feel the same way.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
  3. prgmr6

    Could we have a candidate that espouses atheism please, or at least is admittantly agnostic? enough with what "religion" a candidate is, we need someone who is doesn't have a religion. I don't have a grudge against religious types, but more ppl now don't have a relligion. Not sure someone with a cult like religion will matter, I know of some Mormons and they have some interesting beliefs and customs. GO LONG UNDERWEAR!!!!

    June 2, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
  4. adinim

    you are ant and ant do not have vote right Obama do not need Pibe vote

    June 2, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • Hillcrester

      what??? What language are you using?

      June 2, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  5. Falcon

    Romney's religious affiltiation is about as relevant as the color of his eyes. Why is CNN bring up such a stupid criteria?

    June 2, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • George

      So you'd have no trouble voting for a scientologist then either, right?

      June 2, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
    • Snowman

      Romney's religion is relevant because Mormonism is not a religion, but rather a cult. And we all know how well various cults have been run. Do I want the most powerful man in the world belonging to a cult? No. Do I want the most powerful man in the world to be someone whose beliefs forbid the use of alcohol or caffeine? No. Do I want the most powerful man in the world to be someone who believes in religion that only recently decided to acknowledge black people as being acceptable human beings? No. Other than this, I simply don't like the cut of Romney's jib. This guy has a closet full of skeletons. The only problem is where has he hidden the key.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • Unafiliated

      Snowman... All religion is a sham, including yours. Yet, I don't have any problem with you believing what you want to believe. Whatever. It just means I get a bigger slice of the Pie of Decadence.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  6. anonymus

    The religion is a sham cooked up by a brilliant but down-on-his-luck traveling carnival salesman so he could have power, cash, and s#x with as many little girls and other mens' wives as he wanted. Not a single historical account it asserts in its book (which Mark Twain wittily dismissed as quackery as well) has ever been affirmed by archaeology. The religion is as much of a fraud as Scientology, and while I reserve enough respect for the individuals who practice it as possibly very good people, anyone who believes in it does not get my vote to put their hand on the button, period.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
  7. SnowBuddha

    Evangelical Christians calling Mormons a cult? Pot, meet kettle.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • George

      Uhh, pretty much everyone calls mormonism a cult, except for mormons.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  8. Charly Garcia

    quote "a lot have change in 4 years", come on... he's mormon, the LDS church believes in other testament with a Jesus a lot different from the one we Christians know by the gospels... If he gets elected, I wonder: is polygamy going to be now ok? are black americans going to be treated for their sins the way they were treated according to the book of mormon or the book the pearl of great price? is Mitt Rommey going to commend the excavations of ancient ruins that "belonged" to the ancient lost tribe of Israel whose remains have never been discovered in America? Is there going to be a government special commission to baptize dead presidents into the LDS faith? is angel Moroni going to show up at the inauguration party? Is Joseph Smith star finally going to appear at the Hollywood boulevard?

    June 2, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      >>>" .. If he gets elected, I wonder:"

      You sound like the ones wondering if we elect a Black president will Whites be forced into slavery or made to pay reparations.

      Yall, crack me up.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
    • George

      If he gets elected, a whole bunch of Mormoms would get appointed to cabinet positions, heads of various federal agencies, and appointed as judges here and there. In other words, the actual effects would be far more destructive to the country than the things you babbled on about.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • Tommy Chubberville

      Charly Garcia spreads unfortunate misinformation and religious bigotry, like others in this thread. Well-known Mormons include (among many others) singers Gladys Knight and Brandon Flowers (lead singer of "The Killers"); actors Amy Adams, Jon Heder, Wilford Brimley, and Aaron Eckhart; business leaders J.W. Marriot and David Neeleman (founder of "JetBlue"); athletes Steve Young (Super Bowl MVP), Johnny Miller (golf), Thurl Bailey (basketball), Jack Dempsey (boxing champion), and Torah Bright (Olympic Snow Boarding Gold Medalist). The aforementioned individual include black, white, male, female, etc. I'm not arguing that Mitt Romney is the best candidate for President of the United States. But to assert that he is dangerous because of his religion, or that he is part of a cult, is just plain wrong. And it is bigotry. We need to move on from such small-mindedness. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Latter_Day_Saints#cite_note-126

      June 2, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • Jim

      Charly, you clearly have NO idea what you're talking about - Polygamy is grounds for excommunication in the LDS faith, black Americans (and blacks everywhere) are welcomed in the LDS faith with open arms and hold many leadership positions; while it's possible that Moroni could appear at the inauguration, it's probably no more likely than the Virgin Mary showing up at Kennedy's.

      George - That's like arguing that blacks have taken over all the agencies, courts, etc since Obama got elected. Now, it's true that Obama has appointed a bunch of liberal wack-jobs, but they haven't all been black.

      June 3, 2011 at 8:18 am |
  9. Lynn

    If Governor Romney was a Liberal most of you idiots would have different views on his religion.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
  10. Bob


    June 2, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • anonymus


      June 2, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Crap... one punch knock out and Bob is done. 😀

      June 2, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  11. Falcon

    What me worry?

    June 2, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  12. Joseph

    No one indoctrinated in this cult should be President. Here is why: http://www.ils.unc.edu/~unsworth/mormon/index.html

    June 2, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • Jim

      While some of these quotes are from valid sources, many of them are as useful as learning about Judaism from "Mein Kampf" would be

      June 3, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  13. Paul Ernest Show

    Who's infusing religion into this? It doesn't matter. Romney has great qualities and he is so entertaining to watch. His Flip-flop skills are second to none. He can represent America in the next Olympics as the best world Flip-flopper. Even the video cameras do not stop him. He is invincible. Catch him on camera and he's still leaping high and low. Very Acrobatic with his views.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  14. gandoman

    Mormon ... Shmorman ... Conforman ... Doorman ... Harvey Korman ... who cares!
    Mitt has three things going for him;
    1. He is better looking than the other candidates.
    2. He is better known for being better looking.
    3. He got it right on healthcare once before.
    Seriously, can anyone in their right mind take the republican NAZI party seriously?
    As we watch the party tear itself apart, what will that do for the nation having a GOP President?
    If the NAZI PARTY did not have Hitler, it would be very similar to the republican NAZI party.
    1. They would all want to go to war, they just wouldn't be able to decide who leads the Army, the Navy, etc.
    2. They would agree that the victor takes the spoils, but they would fight over how to divide the spoils up among themselves.
    3. They would give themselves, their friends, their families special treatment, while stomping on everyone else.
    4. They would use the average American to do their 'dirty work' & would hand out a few medals to the deserving few.
    If it wasn't for a group of bible wielding low IQ white trash, the GOP could not win a blind taste test if they cheated.
    Is this a cosmic joke or are the leading republican candidates actually from another world?
    What might be most interesting from a GOP primary is after the dust has settled, how the republican NAZI party will figure out a way to put a 'spin' on their differences & make it seem as if they all come from the same 'MOLD'. They do .....
    It is a YELLOW JELLO MOLD stuffed with NUTS & a stupid grinning SMILKEY FACE in a SWASTIKA shaped baking pan!

    June 2, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • Ryan

      I'm glad I'm not the only one who has noticed the parallels between the neo-conservative Republicans and the Nazi party. They both use fear and xenophobia.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
  15. Stella

    If America was ready for a President not white? questionable birth place? questionable religion? How dare anyone will ask if America is ready for a Mormon President?

    June 2, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  16. dang it

    Funny how all of a sudden everyone is an expert on the Mormon religion. lol

    June 2, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  17. dang it

    Funny how all od a sudden everyone is an expert on the Mormon religion. lol

    June 2, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  18. Ryan

    I am a "Mormon," but I am likely voting for Obama. I just hope that voters keep their focus on political issues rather than religion or hearsay about the LDS faith. Religious bigotry is one of the many reasons that I left the Republican party. I still remember the anti-Mormon material that was left on doorsteps during the last primary election. If Republicans continue to use a "religious test" against candidates, they risk alienating other non-evangelicals in the general election. I'm sure that many Republican's would be more comfortable with Sarah Palin or Michele Backmann as President, but everyone else in the country rolls their eyes at that possibility.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  19. edvhou812

    John Smith for President.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • Unafiliated

      Pocahontas WOULD make a really great First Lady!

      June 2, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
  20. Barry

    If he gets elected, I'll move to another country.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • Ryan

      I'll hold you to that

      June 2, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • Abby

      please do

      June 2, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Unafiliated

      Best news I've heard all day.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:27 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.