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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. john

    really does it mater, let's go republican again because they do such a better job at screwing up the country than democrats. All of them are the same dem rep doesn't matter they are all liars and power hungry pigs who cares we might as well live in a monarchy at least something would get done with our money.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
  2. dreucalypt

    I don't think being a member of the LDS church is a problem with the general electorate. But it is a problem getting the Republican nomination, because the evangelical Protestants who dominate the Republican party are hostile to them. Of the two candidates, Romney is both the most qualified and the most vulnerable. He has a successful resume, and he was a reasonably successful moderate Republican governor of Massachusetts. But he has run against his basically moderate convictions for the last five years, and has not really persuaded the conservatives that he is one of them. Huntsman, by contrast, might seem to have trouble with the Republican base. But the base is divided between many conservative candidates, and as the only moderate on that side of the aisle he might have a chance. At least, unlike Romney, he seems authentic, and he has taken a few risks along the way.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • Ralph T

      I remember when the hostility issue was used to explain why John F. Kennedy wouldn't win the election. Hopefully Americans have risen above prejudices of this kind. With race we have a long way to go, but religion? Come on!

      June 2, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
  3. The Half Baked Lunatic

    Gotta admire any religion who's motto is "I don't care how many you bring, just Bring 'Em Young"

    June 2, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • Ralph T

      Geez, never heard one before. (yawn)

      June 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
  4. What's a girl to do

    Ah yes, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young ........... two great pioneers of defining 'family values' who are among the "saints" worshipped by the MItt-meister.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • Ralph T

      If only you had something intelligent to say...

      June 2, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
  5. jaf

    I'd take a Mormon anyday over a Muslim. What is the big deal about the Mormon religion?

    June 2, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • Ralph T

      The only people who are hostile toward the Mormon religion are those who either haven't taken time to learn what Mormonism is all about or have an axe to grind. You'll find that there is a vocal segment of the ex-mormon population that is very bitter toward the church, but I don't pay them much mind. How many divorcees do you know who have kind feelings toward their former spouse?

      June 2, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  6. Vesi

    The religion (or lack of it) of the president has nothing to do with having good ethical and moral standards. We still have a long way to go if we let religion get in the way to elect our president or representatives to the congress.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  7. NoMor Mons

    Big love? Not on your freakin' life. As late as 1978, the cutl this man belonged to prohibited blacks from becoming ministers. So, this RACIST wants to be president? Well, he can take his filthy racist butt and his harem of wives and get the hell out.

    America does not need this pig slime

    June 2, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • John D

      I really have no love for Romney, but...how can you claim a racist policy of the LDS that is no longer in affect mean the Romney himself is a racist?!? You might as well say that any white person who uses a bathroom that was once "whites only" is a racist. Talk a bout logic FAIL, sheesh.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
    • Ralph T

      Actually, blacks held the priesthood in the mormon church as far back as the mid 1800's.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
  8. hih

    If he will state what he thinks he can actually acomplish with the current economic and political condition, I will listen to anyone. I am fed up with the standard flag waving,bash the other guy politics we have suffered through the last 25 years. Sick to death of the billion dollar negative crapola we are punished with every four years.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
  9. Jim

    Who cares what religion he is.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
  10. myk

    Maybe we are but I doubt, because America's not yet ready for a higher moral standards.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
    • hih

      Seems America is content with the change we have seen thus far....sighs

      June 2, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  11. Miken

    Why not we have one of the most ungodly men in the white house I have ever seen now, so why not have someone who at least admits the existence of God, you people will never get it at CNN if you are for abortion you are not for God and he is definately for abortion.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  12. J

    No way, anyone who honestly believes in and closely follows any religion what so ever is delusional and weak minded.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
    • Robert Richardson

      Parroted like a true Dawkinite, sir.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  13. Charlie

    We need a fiscal conservative, not a social one. Go away Mitt.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  14. dave

    Why not a Mormon? They are very diverse. Look at the political landscape. Harry Reid (Majority Leader of the Senate) is just as Mormon as Romney. Pretty Far Left (Reid), Pretty Far Right (Romney), In between (Huntsman).

    June 2, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  15. Carrie Ann

    I would prefer a legally blind mormon dwarf lesbian with one leg for president. Then and only then will true diversity be achieved. Let my people go.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
  16. Dan

    Let's be clear. We are in an economic recession because:
    1) Bush said the sky was falling in '08 to try to help Mccain win.
    2) Obama inhereted Bush's economic collapse.
    3) Republicans were and always will be the party of NO ever since they lost to a black man.
    4) The Republicans will do anything and everything to get power back, even if that means to cause fear and panic to devalue the Dollar and rise prices of Gold!
    The Republicans are the true American terrorists!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    June 2, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
    • COURTKNEE LOVE

      Obama inherited Bush's mess and Obama has failed at reversing it. They are both failures. Enough time has passed that one can no longer moan about Bush being so bad. Bush was almost 4 years ago. It is time for accountability for Obama no matter how bad Bush sucked my dog's rear.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Dan

      So Courtney Love-
      You think that by virtue of "enough time passing" that this exonerates Republicans from collapsing America?
      How patriotic of you, to forget so easily. Sure... just flip the channel – OUT OF SIGHT – OUT OF MIND!!!!

      June 2, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • obamayakyak

      Bush meant well. Obama is doubling down on Bush's mistakes because Obama wants to collapse the economy.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • petemg

      Remember that the Democrats have been in control for quite a while. They should have gotten more done with a Democratic president. I only hope the voters can keep their eyes open to really see what is going on. It is sad when we have a president in office who is trying to drum up more money for his campaign. When these politicians on both sides are doing this and apparently do not realize the state our government is in. I just want all concerned and do something for the government and the people. They all need to refocus. One more comment it took a majority to vote for a minority for the sake of history and change.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • hih

      Wow...really. When exactly does your anointed one going take responsibility for his policy and complete disregard of everything he campaigned on? I would list them for you however I doubt you would acknowledge the truth. I guess the change he spoke of was the letterhead of the White House stationary.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • wsu1983

      AMEN!!!!!!!!!!

      June 2, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
  17. Dom

    If hecwas a democrat he could win. Democrats have nominated a greek a Jew a woman a black an Italian a catholic. Republicans haven't.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
  18. Timothy

    Is America ready for a Mormon President? The answer is a resounding NO. Take a look at the 2008 Republican Primary Electoral Map (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Republican_Party_%28United_States%29_presidential_primaries_results,_2008.svg)
    Mitt Romney did not win a single primary in the South or Midwest. He won Minnesota (Upper Mid West). In order to win the Republican Party Nomination, he would have to go from winning no states in those regions in 2008, to winning about half in 2012. That's a bet I'll take.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
  19. GJGVT

    i think the real question the headline should ask is: Is the country ready for a president named after baseball equipment?

    June 2, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • Beck

      heh heh – yes, what's up with that name?

      June 4, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  20. Ron

    Of course conservative Christians will not vote for him. He's not Christian by "their" definition of Christian.
    They would never vote of anyone different from them. They're gods chosen people, just ask them.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • Never Again

      I thought the Jews were. Ask them. Or the muslims. Ask them...blah blah blah.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
    • Matty ice

      Veryyyyy ignorant comment

      June 2, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
    • petemg

      Do not stereotype all Christians. I look at the person and what they say they represent for the people. I am Caucasian and I would like to hear more from Herman Cain. And then look who we have in office. The majority of the people voted in a minority for change.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Dan

      There are too many denominations of Christianity – they all hate each other. I'm not worried one bit that these people who run on God will LOSE LOSE LOSE!!!

      June 2, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • oRn

      @Ron

      You don't even the complete name of the (Mormon) Church.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:28 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.