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. abby

    I've met some very nice Mormons, Catholics, Jews, Protestants, etc., etc., etc. and some not so nice.
    What really matters to me is the person.
    Romney did not convince me before and does not convince me now that he should be president.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
  2. Not at all

    No, America is not ready for a Moman president. We are not ready because we are not adhering to God's commands anyway.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
  3. charles bowen

    I worked with a Mormon once! once. Mitt will make a Great President ! Charles Bowen Solomon Stone

    June 2, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  4. CJ

    No more religious fanatics we need someone with a good sense of what America needs and work for this country. We need to stop the waste of US dollars and taxs payers money in other countries and concentrate in our homeless and put this country in what it suppose to be and represents.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  5. SkippingDog

    Is America ready for a Mormon President?

    Not after Glen Beck!

    June 2, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
    • kris

      Yeah because all Mormons are just like Glenn Beck. I bet you were heartbroken when you found out Harry Reid is a Mormon too, right?

      June 2, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • SkippingDog

      Many more people know about Beck. The bible-thumpers won't have it.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  6. jeanne, Moscow, ID

    A person's religion is a private matter. I'm not Mormon, and I see no reason why a Mormon couldn't be president. Please, let's keep religion out of the decision making process. Why are there (and why have there been) so many ongoing conflicts based on religion? Let's judge perspective candidates on what they have done or plan to do for our country.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
    • Can't believe how blind some ppl are...

      And you don't think their plans and their goals won't be influenced by their religion? What turnip truck did you fall out of?

      June 2, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
    • Gingerpeach

      And a person that is not LDS do you think their faith will matter? LDS are more trusting, on a whole as to someone that has no faith or beliefs. Everyone has beliefs and their beliefs will matter to them also.
      I'll vote for Mr. Romney. At least someone that believes in God is more carful and true than someone who doesn't. They don't worry so much about what people will think as to what God will think.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
  7. kerry

    I'll tell you one thing. The Catholic girls I've dated have all been hypocritical to their faith... in ways you wouldn't even imagine. Or maybe you could. I would trust a Mormon over any Christian any day. And I'm Christian myself.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • Cesare

      Mormons are Christians. Supposedly!

      June 2, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • Gingerpeach

      The LDS ARE Christians

      June 2, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
  8. Cesare

    I don't care, anyone who believes the story of Joseph Smith has serious mental problems. This story is so ridiculas it rates right up there with Ron Hubbards Dianetics. Good Drugs? Maybe! But sober? Not a chance.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  9. Shelly

    Another lukewarm, flip-flopping Republican who essentially promises to continue the corruption in DC? No thanks.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  10. Jason

    After 8 years of having a Moron President, I'm not sure America's ready for another...

    ... oh wait, that says "Mormon." Well, yea, I guess that would be okay. Just so long as he's not one of those guys who tries to push some kind of public health care agenda. Those guys are socialists!

    June 2, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  11. Ivan

    We certainly are ready for a Mormon President, but who? Romney sure isn't it! Huntsman is getting my vote in the primary.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  12. woodbeans

    Are you kidding me? What could his religion possibly have to do with his ability to be president? Please don't tell me this country is that narrow minded!

    June 2, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • Tropical Sunshine

      Following a religion means you have a delusional belief system that influences nearly every decision you make.
      How could anyone say their religion doesn't matter? It ALWAYS matters because it warps the judgment.
      And that magic underwear thing isn't nearly as bad as all the stuff the LDS does to violate our laws – based on their religion.
      So, yes, it matters very much.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • SkippingDog

      The right-wing "base" in the old Confederacy and the Evangelical Movement are most certainly that narrow minded. The hard-core religious right thinks even God hates Mormons – in addition to others too numerous to list here.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  13. Eric B

    Hey, anything is possible. We elected a socialist/communist last time.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • Gingerpeach

      Amen to that!!

      June 2, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  14. Jay

    Sure it's ready for a Mormon president ... but not this one.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  15. Eduardo Cabrera

    Aahhhggg what else can go wrong we allready destroying our own country I can't believe our goverment owe money to almost everybody we are supost to be the most powerfull coutry in the world ...goverment need to take care of our own problems then we go internationally help others !!! We are in big trouble if we don't do nothing please somebody do something!!!!!!!!

    June 2, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  16. Nate G

    Many believe all religious people are crazy. Trying to decide which religious person is crazier than the other religious person is futile.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
  17. realistic

    its not that I have anything in particular against any group of people, but to buy into that crazy story and accept it as something that happened, to me, seems like the kind of lunacy we should be keeping away from the white house... that being said, if its him or Palin, I'd take the (less) crazy Mormon beliefs over the absolute ignorance.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • Tropical Sunshine

      Less crazy? They are both nuts. One has magic underwear and represents a religion that oppresses women, gays, ppl of color, and anyone who hasn't been approved by their church. The other one does the same thing, only the religious label is different. All the major religions oppress women. All of them discriminate against others. There is no "innocent" religion to choose from. They all suck.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  18. Agnostic Warrior

    Do we really know if Romney is a devout Mormon, or does he use the religion for convenience, like so many other politicians?

    The truth is the religion of the Latter Day Saints is cult-like, and only deluded and brainwashed people could honestly believe such nonsense.

    If Romney is to survive, he must say, for the record, that religion has no place in governance.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • maggie

      How is the Mormon religion a cult? From somebody so convinced surely you have some facts to back this?

      June 2, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • realistic

      I'm totally against using religion in a campaign. The separation of church and state is there for a reason, and it's a good one (despite what the religious right would have you believe); so if that separation is something we endorse then discussing religion during an election shouldn't be allowed.

      Also, TV ads as a campaigning tool should be disallowed, elections are little more than a glorified popularity contest in which the person with the most money (and thus air-time) wins.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • JSS

      We are not a cult!!! I am so sick of that! No one tells me when to pee and OMG, I don't always go to church. I do what I want when I want. Give it a rest.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • John Robertson

      Get real .. It's a cut a dried cult.. Look in your magic hat.. God talked to me.. South park did it justice .. Dum Dum Dum

      June 2, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
    • Unafiliated

      Romney, 2007: "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin."

      June 2, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      If he is to survive? Your kidding right, ...

      June 2, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • Gingerpeach

      We are NOT a cult, we are NOT racist! And we ARE Christians. We BELIEVE in God the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost. What is the fault in that?

      June 2, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
  19. Koga001

    America is absolutely not ready for a mormon president. Anyone who could believe the nonsense scrawled in any 'holy' book is alread delusional, but of all the wide spread religions mormon is only one shot less crazy than scientology. On top of it's crazyness it is, like most religions, extremely racist. I am a Native American and find the notion that Mitt Romney believes that my people were punished buy his 'god' and therefore made a darker color than him. This means that he thinks of his race as inherently superior my race. Anyone who votes for romney, or any other vocally religious candidate, is voting for devisivness, hate, smallness, pettiness and mysticism. Our country needs a leader who is firmly grounded in reality and ready to face out problems without the support of magic people who live in the sky.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • JSS

      That is not true!!! Mormons believe in equality! Men, women, black, white, Mormon or non-Mormon. All are precious in God's eyes. Have you talked to a Mormon lately? This is a classic example of twisting the facts.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • David

      I 100% agree.

      Mormonism is an explicitly racist religion. Still they have manuals that currently advise their missionaries to avoid interracial marriages.

      But most offensively are these anti-Native American and anti-black African passages about their skin color being dark from a mark or a curse.

      It's funny because Mormons swear that the whole mark of cain = black skin thing is a revelation... but Baptists and Methodists were prancing that folk tale around before Smith was born. So it's no revelation (even without their ignorance). No, he copy catted the racism of the day and it still shows in their so-called scriptures.
      Until Mormonism LDS or whatever it's called is ready to strike out and apologize for those passages, then we will never be ready for a Mormon president.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
    • SkippingDog

      The Mormons may believe all those things, JSS, but the religious right and evangelical movement don't. They think every Mormon is already condemned. Of course, they also say that about unconverted Jews.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  20. Mark

    Can Mitt Romney win the Republican primaries this time around? Will his Mormon faith keep him out of the White House?
    Is Mitt Winning or Losing? Go to TALKSHEEN.COM and decide on who is winning and losing in society?

    June 2, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • Peace2All

      "Is Mitt (Winning) or Losing? Go to TALKSHEEN.COM and decide on who is (winning) and losing in society?

      LOL... 😀 Very funny !


      June 2, 2011 at 7:40 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.