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. AK

    The Republican party has become a laughing stock. Mitt amazingly is the least embarrassing Republican out there.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
    • tc

      really? The Dems are the embarrassment to the world..... Weinergate for instance.... I can't think of anyone I would not vote for over Obama..... have another cigarette!

      June 2, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
    • AK

      Lol, unfortunately for those of us with an education... we would not vote for the disgraceful Republican's these days that have been taken over by the lunatic fringe. You guys are literally embarrassing this country!!

      June 2, 2011 at 9:39 pm |
  2. Karen

    Massachusetts is devasted by Mr. Rommney. He ruined our health care.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
  3. stu

    No. In 1978 mormon leaders facing mounting political pressure due to their racist policies, held a meeting with god, and he told them it was o.k to allow them in the temple, and in effect attain priesthood. i don't know if their are any black priests. In 1973, some higher up referred to blacks as 'darkies'. Creepy.

    Posted by: kodiak | Jun 2, 2011 9:15:13 PM

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    He belongs to a cult. Why would you want him to run the country?

    June 2, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
  4. bob

    the evangelicals will never vote for him, they do not consider catholics as christians let alone mormans.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
    • Morinta

      And that has what to do with voting for a president? We're not voting on a religious leader.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
    • bob

      it has to do with voting for a president because the evangelical christians hate the mormans and think that they are demon spawn.

      you cant get the republican nomination without the evangelicals which is why the replublicans push infringing on womans rights as well as any other religious laws that they can stroke these morons with.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
  5. john

    If you think they really care about the average Joe you are an idiot they care about power and status. Wake the hell up. There has not been a leader of this country since WWII. Has anyone noticed we can not even win a war. Hello we need a leader not a democrat or a republican figure we need a real leader screw the American party system.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • Rikjas

      true that man, true that

      June 2, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
  6. Karen

    How about qualified? I live in his state and have to live with his choices, which are devastating.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
  7. Jeff

    What does it matter? What is Obama's religion? Who cares?

    June 2, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
  8. Marie MD

    Nothing to do with religion for flip flop man. All mitts has to do do to rise above the circus of "rethug candidate clowns" is to get himself a pair of ugly glasses and somehow find himself a lazy eye, buy somehair extensions (for when your hair starts falling out), get yourself some four inch ho-ho shoes and start talking in a high pitch utterly annoying voice and the media will not be able to leave you alone as they cover every single brain fart you have.
    That being said this is the only authentic candidate for 2012 and he is being pushed aside by the likes of "we were never attacked" mr 9/11 himself, the bimbo from AK (enough said) and other retreads, never been and never will be anything.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
  9. Morinta

    How sad that our major policy decisions are influenced by this voting block that obsesses over people's personal relationship with God. I realize such people are at a very early stage in their spiritual development, so holding them accountable is like blaming a child for bad manners, but it would still be nice to have adults making decisions once in a while.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
  10. James

    Umm...who cares? Quite frankly any grown adult that has an invisible friend has no business in office anyway.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
  11. Tim

    It's a cult. No thanks.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
  12. Pitdownman

    Let's go back to Atheism, like the founding fathers.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • Marie MD

      Except that the tea-baggers led by the AK imbecilic moron and traitor tells us that the founding fathers (not that she could name any of them until she finally got it wrong) believe that the founding fathers were christians and followed the word of some god or another.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
    • Dave

      You have no idea how stupid you sound when you say that...

      June 2, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
    • Bryan

      Deism is the word you are thinking of...and yes...that would be nice.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
  13. Jimbo

    He would have to prove to the nation he's Mormon and not Muslim like Obama's had to do with being a humble Christian.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
  14. Bill

    Why not? The man in the White House is a Muslim.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • Marie MD

      @bill – please take your meds tonight. You are becoming delusional and after two and a half years you are a complete morong to continue to say things like that!

      June 2, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
  15. Paul

    So are there going to be 3 first ladies?

    June 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
  16. skarphace

    The article failed to address one other reason why Republicans may be willing to vote for a Mormon. Glenn Beck was a driving force behind the Tea Party movement, and any Republican candidate needs the Tea Party vote. And guess what, Beck is Mormon. So Romney has a very good chance indeed, as does Huntsman (who is also Mormon).

    These are the only two Republicans I see that have a chance against Obama, which is yet another reason Republicans may vote for them.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
  17. Kenneth S. III

    Stop it. Please stop bringing up quasi issues that are designed to divide people. It doesn't matter what their religious backgrounds are. Was America ready for a Black president? No, but we got one in office that needs our support. Please be more responsible on reporting FACTS not divisive questions.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
    • ChaCha

      YES! It DOES matter! Mormanism is a CULT! And their way of life is not the norm, they insinuate themselves on other people regarding their beliefs! Read up on tis before you have an opinion. And t's not just the multiple wives...........I know first hand.....this is not good!

      June 2, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
  18. Chris

    Since when is gay a race? It's a lifestyle and a religion has a right to oppose it. Stop looking for justification.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
    • Morinta

      Hilarious – gay is a lifestyle now? Where do people get these lies? As if anyone would choose to be subject to such bigotry, hatred, and ignorance that our society perpetuates on those Christ Jesus protected.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
    • Chris

      Christ condemned gay behavior

      June 2, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
    • Morinta

      Your basing that assumption on a book written and compiled centuries after the one we call Christ actually walked this earth. You, actually, don't know what he said. You know what powerful men who voted on the texts to be included, rewrote texts, and misintepreted texts wanted him to say for their own power. Nice try, though. Christ was no bigot.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • John D

      I'm sorry Chris, but did "Christ" tell you this himself? The bit about condemning all gay people.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
  19. Gilli

    This Jew would love to cast their vote for Jon Huntsman, but he'll never make it out of the Republican primary. If Romney wins the nomination then I'm sticking with Obama. Go figure.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
  20. Khyle

    the U.S. can't handle Arnold sleeping with two women... what happens when the President has 8 wives?

    June 2, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • Chris

      This was a practice over 100 years and we continue to bring this up but we defend gay lifestyle? This is liberal logic.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
    • benedicte

      @Chris- "gay lifestyle" and "gay agenda" – have you ever met a responsible, kind, generous, loving, committed gay couple? Have you ever broken out of your little bubble of fear and disapproving? Maybe if you had, you wouldn't be so hateful of gays, who certainly don't choose to be gay. Who would choose to be actively vilified and looked-down on by the likes of you when they could have it easier? Your logic makes no sense.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • Friend

      The LDS church hasn't practiced polygamy for over a century. Mitt Romney was the only Republican candidate in the '08 race who had been married only once.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:44 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.