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.
ALL Mormons are conservative Republicans.That's why no one goes to their church..
yeah, that's why they have over 13 million members
Why not a Mormon, it wasn't an issue for a half breed muslin.
...And I see that racism is alive and well
Are there any Amish candidates available to run?
They run puppy mills and treat their draft horses like machinery (when they are no longer useful, they are sold to slaughter houses). I am not a fan.
well we already have a moron president so why not add an "m" and try a mormon for a change.
ha! ha! ha! ha! So funny, Steve. Not!
I am sure you think the guy Obama replaced was a genius. I wonder where that leaves you
Well we've had a a couple geriatrics, several incompetents, a womanizing narcissist and a complete coward as president (Woodrow Wilson) so why not throw a mormon in there for good measure! After the country elected Bush junior then Obama it appears that the presidency is nothing more than a joke anyway
I don't care what the president's or anybody's religion is as long as they leave it at home.
Sorta if a Gay guy gets to be president those who are anti-gay will think it would be wise for them to leave their husband at home. 🙂
Just my take on this. I have a brother that is "washed in the blood" He is convinced everyone is going to
Hell except people that think like him. That is Ok with me. He is in another state and I don't have to listen to it very often.
One thing he did do was look at the yellow pages in my little town at the churches and he declared most of them "cults"
I guess if you don't think like him you must be a cult. This was a small town in N California. Lots of Mormons. Lots of stakes etc. He did a half a day about the 'cult mormons" There is an entire world full of sanctmonous "Born again christians that think like him. I really think this will be a problem for the GOP. They can talk about how religion should stay out of the political stuff. Tell that to the idiots that think Obama is a Muslim. Tell that to my brother and all off the people that think like him. They make up a large percentage of the voting GOP.
On target! Astounds me how many rabid evangelicals do not see the difference between themselves and the muslim zealots!
America does not need a religious person as President!!! We need a Kingdom man or woman, regardless of their race!!!
This is the kind of person the body of Jesus Christ needs to be praying for, and what this country needs!!! No more political puppets who really don't care about the people!!! We need a man or woman who will stand for righteousness, justice, and the well-being of all Americans, equally!!!
It's the "Republican" bit that concerns me far more than the "LDS" bit. And I have some serious problems with the LDS church.
Why not.....we already have had several moron presidents
Obama will be reelected in 2012, because the Republicans have no one better to run. I'm a Democrat and disappointed, but the Republicans aren't any better. They hide behind their religion and conservative social agenda, instead of resolving the problems in this country, which were caused by their masters, corporate American and Wall Street. Nothing will ever change.
Well, I guess many of us thought we were ready to elect a Half Muslim president! Did we not?
I can't believe that there are still people who believe this.
Another continuing slur–he's no more a Muslim than I am, and I am a reform Jewish atheist. Get over it. He's a Black/White mixed race Christian.
Half Muslim?? Which half???
There was a time when people said and wrote non-sense similar to several of the comments I just read regarding candidate John F. Kennedy because he was catholic. It's appalling to read that so many people do not respect our nation's freedom of religion. As a catholic, I could care less about our President's religion. I want a Commander in Chief that can address and resolve our nation's pressing economic, social, political, and foreign policy issues. No one has the right to think that their religion is better than anybody else's!
Was waiting for someone to mention JKF. He was the only president in my lifetime that was considered "risky" due to his religion. Everything I have read (3 yrs. old when he was shot) indicates that he did not let his religion rule his decisions. Frankly, a bit more concerned about Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court who seems to always rule according to his religion and sets the laws of the land. Think the question to be asked is whether his religion will influence his presidency.
No! Belief in Mormonism is an indication of decision based on fantasy rather than logic and experience.
As much as I don't like Palin to be our next president, thinking of Mitt as President makes me want to puke. Just because America elected a black president now everybody think they can be president as well. What a shame!
Why not a Mormom president...that way, we can blame him for everything too.
I worked for one for three years, hell no. I will never vote for one.
While there are so many disagreements that I have with Mormanism/LDS, I'm more repulsed by our current alternative. After all, Obama sat in Rev. Wright's pews for 20 years and listened to him spew hatred. Unfortunately, it always comes back to the lesser of all evils.
You mean the lesser of two weevils.
Good one Captain.
Having, a Mormon as President;no way for all those goofy things they believe in.Including the magic underwear,believing Jesus Christ and the Devil are brothers,and doing work for the dead.No,Mormom should be United States President. JoAnn
How about one that believes in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men as in The Articles of Faith of the LDS Church. Or how about We claim the the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege.
I have a better question: is America ready for a president who does not subscribe to a religious denomination? Say, someone like Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, spiritually-minded men who figured out for themselves that you don't need another human being to speak for god or relay your messages to the creator?
Yes, a Deist would be nice. I suppose an agnostic or secular humanist would be out of the question. No, it will be a long time before we have a mainstream, serious contender for the presidency who is not approved by the religious right.
Couldn't have said it better myself!
Unfortunately, I fear you are correct. I'm afraid it won't happen in my lifetime.