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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. C from Iowa

    What a shame that a person's religion is even being considered part of the qualification for the Presidency. Those who refuse to vote for someone because of their religion are no better than those who refuse to vote for someone because of their skin color.

    June 2, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
  2. MikeBell

    Oh please...
    Harry Reid and Huntsman are Mormons. So what's the big deal.
    Aren't the liberals and conservatives against ethnic discrimination?
    The bullies surely will be out in force on the blogs; just on this issue alone.

    June 2, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • Mad Panda

      The big deal to me is that i wont vote for a person who believes in something for no reason whatsoever. A person of this nature cannot be trusted to make good decisions based in logic and reason. Too bad so many people believe that faith is a good thing to have. In reality it just makes you vulnerable.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Why, you only believe in things you can see with your own eyes. That is why you are easily fooled. 🙂

      June 2, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
    • C from Iowa

      Mad Panda, I guess that means you won't be voting for Obama in 2012 either, eh? Or do you hold candidates from one party to a different standard than those from another?

      June 2, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
    • Mad Panda

      There is alot more than just religion that I take into consideration. Its just that religion influences alot of the things I care about and when someone is willing to forgoe logic and reason it scares me.

      No, i dont only believe in things that i can see with my own eyes. There are a lot more ways of knowing something. Like microscopes and mathematics. Even if something isnt proven in anyway, m-theory for examply, if it predicts outcome than there is at least a reason. In other words, probability comes into play.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • Mad Panda

      in my origional post i should have said "i dont want to vote......" and not "i wont vote....." because i will choose the lesser of the evils as has happened in the past.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
  3. Elbert

    Gotta love those open-minded liberal democrats! Not a prejudiced bone in their body- no way! I wonder if they're the same ones who preach tolerance and diversity? Probably.

    June 2, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • C from Iowa

      In their minds, everyone else needs to be tolerant of them. They are under no self-imposed obligation to reciprocate.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • standingwave

      Yeah,well Liberals don't generally vote for Republicans anyway.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • Hillcrester

      The "religious-test" opposition to Romney will come primarily from evangi-delusional Republicans, not Democrats. I am exactly the kind of open-minded (Democrat) person you wish for–but I won't vote for Romney because he will advance the awful Republican agenda and he is an opportunistic, "I was for it before I was against it" hypocrite. His religion has nothing to do with my opposition.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
  4. Jake

    The one I am really intrigued and interested in is Jon Huntsman. He sounds reasonable and like he has his head on straight. I'm a democrat that would highly consider voting for a republican in that instance.

    June 2, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
  5. Rebecca

    I wouldn't want to vote for Romney but I sure don't want Obama voted for either. No we don't need an athiest president. Our nation has gone down so far since Obama took office.

    June 2, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • 2manyhorses

      Good grief! Not only is Obama not an athiest, our problems started when Dumbya started a no-win war and essentially gave his cronies in the oil industry, insurance, and big pharma a massive tax break on the backs of middle America...get your head out of the sand!

      June 2, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      If the wars were started by G.W. then why has Obama pulled our troops. Why are we now adding another war in Lybia?

      June 2, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • 2manyhorses

      OK, Mark...making this simple...Dumbya, weapons of "mass destruction"; all proven bogus. Just wanted to avenge daddy (Sadam insulted him) and make a name for himself in taking out Sadam- no threat to US and no weapons of mass destruction. How many Americans died for this assinine effort? In the meantime, how many hornets' nest do you need to kick before seeing a backlash? Obama took out the source of 911 in only how many months? Dumbya was there for how long and never found Osama! Your racism is showing!

      June 2, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
    • Dirty Dinghus McGhee

      I expect that when Mark gets done laughing he'll respond appropriately....

      June 2, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
  6. Alan

    Every last one you guys are just insane. Mormons are great people. It would be great to have a mormon president!

    June 2, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • Seen it before

      You are obviously the insane one. Mormons are pinch-brained, vicious, and hateful where their religion "guides" them.
      You are also a liar.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
    • Tom

      better a mormon president than a muslim like we got now

      June 2, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • MikeBell

      Seen it before – How dare you say that about Harry Reid.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
  7. Ed

    What does it matter whether they are Mormon, Catholic, Muslim, Christian, Black, White, Man, or Woman? They all are or become puppets of the special interest groups who have the money to pay. Your question should be when are Americans who have no voice in the American political process going to say enough is enough and begin the next revolution!

    June 2, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • MikeBell

      Now Ed, how much genocide are you considering?
      You are certainly aware that the liberal democrats have been busy building the dependency class that will inevitably vote for more government care that will cost the dependency class little or nothing.
      Special interest? Are you sure you are not in their ranks?

      June 2, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  8. Rad

    How about if we just stick to voting for a true Christian who believe that marriage should be between a man, a woman and his many mistresses instead of a guy who is a member of a fake Christian sect like Romney?

    I don't consider myself Christian but always admire the neighborhood churches for helping out the poors and the unfortunates. That is until they run for political offices on the GOP tickets, then they are out to screw the poors and the unfortunates.

    June 2, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • 2manyhorses

      Amen.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
    • MikeBell

      Wow! Talk about fake civility.
      Apparently you only admire those that do their alms openly.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
  9. john jacob jinglehiemerschmidt

    two words (magic underwear) look it up...... yep, mormonism possibly even more cultish and wierd than the other major religions.. possibly..

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

      Some wear crosses or other emblems to remind them of their commitments to civility and fidelity.
      Mormons have their underwear that is a more obvious reminder before compromising their commitment to civility and family.
      What do you have to remind you to be honorable and civil?

      June 2, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
    • Hillcrester

      to Mike Bell–Yes, most religions have emblems and riyuals that seem (to outsiders) to be peculiar. I have no problem with Romney's (or anyone's) religious choices, but as I have read about Mormonism (quite curious about it) I learned that the "secret" undergarments (you need a Mormon membership card to buy them) are supposed to have (what sounds to me like) magical protective powers. That is weirder to me than even the "body anf Blood of Christ" Communion idea, which I think for many is metaphorical.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • standingwave

      Mike,honor and civility should not require reminders.Should be second nature.I have to wonder about people who do need the reminders.What woulfd they be like without them?

      June 2, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
    • MikeBell

      standingwave –
      That is a very good point.
      Just imagine how awful some people would be without any incentive to be civil.
      But don't discount those that are good natured and embrace emblems that represent their true nature.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • Not having any

      @Mike Bell – True nature? What a joke. There is no such thing when you are talking about religion. Everything can be interpreted any way you like and everyone can say different. Religion's only "nature" is that it is delusional.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  10. DJ

    We are ready for Obama 2012

    June 2, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • Alan

      No not at all!

      June 2, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
  11. joe800

    ...good businessmen do not make good government...they are diametrically opposed..one is all about the good of one, the other about the good of all and protecting the weakest members of our society....did none of you notice WHO caused the economic melt down?...I guess if you were watching Fox Noise, then yeah I guess you did...

    June 2, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • Hillcrester

      His business career was built on buying companies and laying off/firing employees.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
  12. Daniel

    Mormon...Muslim. Comme ci comme ca. One a 7th century abomination, the other a 19th century abomination. Don't know how a committed Christian could vote for either unless the candidate were strictly secular. By the way, President Obama is a Christian.

    June 2, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
  13. BENJI

    His religion dont matter because the racist republicans would vote for a satan worshipper as long as he is white and a republican.

    June 2, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • Shake, bro

      Too true.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • 2manyhorses

      Sadly, probably true.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • MikeBell

      BENJI – Are you saying that the liberal Democrats were right to put the poor into the segregated housing projects of the 60's and 70's and making them a dependency class that will loyaly vote to maintain and expand the programs of their dependency? And the author of 'Uncle Sam's Plantation' is really a Democrat because she isn't white? And Herman Cain is a white guy in an African American disguise?
      Talk about being derisive and prejudice.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
  14. Squeaky Voice

    The Joseph Smith story, the complete wierdness, secrecy of this religion and how they operate is wheels off loco. They might be nice on the surface and display decent family values but behind closed doors they are horrible to women, minorities, doubters, and discriminate against non-Mormons in their commnunities. They are a mind controlling cult no sane person should trust. Ever.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • Jake

      Yeah, because burning bushes, 40 day floods, dead coming back to life all sound more plausible. The difference with these other crazy thoughts is that they have been veiled under the cloak of antiquity not the information age like Mormonism. You think the Hebrew slaves were literate? Why are there no other accounts of any of this?

      June 2, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • DP - Mormon

      Wow, I don't know where you got this information from, but your comments made me sick. I don't think you are very educated when it comes to the Mormon religion. You should discuss it with a Mormon. I am proud to be a Mormon, and am glad that we actually live what we preach, and it is not for show.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
  15. Alex

    It ain't gonna happen. Our society is too Christian-fundamentalist, conservative and jesus-crazy. Having a black president was enough of a stretch for most people, but having a president that doesn't even believe in jesus OR god but some guy who discovered some golden plates that spoke to him is really pushing it. I'm sure he's a nice guy and all, but the whole mormom thing is one gigantic monkey (with gold plates) on his back.

    June 2, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • up1652

      They do belisve in Jesus. They think he was here in North America however. Thats the problem

      June 2, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • Hillcrester

      It's the "your religion id crazy, my crazy religion makes sense" phenomenon. But it will be only one of many things that hurt Ronmey: Romneycare (a good idea he has to defend), previous pro-choice views (he can now recant), ruthless business job DE-creation.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
  16. Steve Portaro

    NO

    June 2, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  17. DJ

    no we are not ready for silly cult

    June 2, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  18. Kane

    If only we were ready for an atheist president...

    June 2, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  19. Anne

    I would take a mormon ANYDAY before I would take a lyin democrat who is a muslim!

    June 2, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • up1652

      Or an atheist

      June 2, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • DJ

      poor anne, I am sure you are missing Bush and Cheney a lot.
      your so called muslim prez killed bin laden..never forget that silly woman

      June 2, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • Will

      Oh shut the f*&# up you Southern idiot. Even if Obama WERE a Muslim, all that would mean is that he'd have something in common with Bush and Reagan (pretending to be Christians when they clearly aren't).

      June 2, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
    • Leslie Hardein

      Fool

      June 2, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • Cedar rapids

      Good job there isnt one running then I guess Anne.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • 2manyhorses

      Anne, it is very simple.
      According to what I have read, you just relax the sphincter and slowly remove your head.
      Good luck!!

      June 2, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  20. JIMMY

    Is America ready for a white President? Two and a half years after under a black person can we honestly say that Americans are ready and willing to vote for a person with a different skin color?

    June 2, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • Leslie Hardein

      You must be really happy with yourself for being a racist. You are a jerk!

      June 2, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Heck, there are members of the African American community that are mad and upset with Obama. I think we need a Chinese president.

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

      Sorry to bust your balls dude, but answer is yes. And more likely than not, Obama will win 2012

      June 2, 2011 at 8:03 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.