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 Johnson

    After learning more about Mormonism by watching "8: The Mormon Proposition," the last thing an America that values its freedoms needs is to elect a Mormon president.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  2. Mike in CA

    It would be nice if someday a presidential candidate's race, religion, gender or whatever generates no interest or controversy. But that's probably just wishful thinking on my part....

    June 2, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
    • Dingle

      If we judged candidates on their merits instead of skin, religion, hair style or gender, what would we do with our time? This country makes me sick.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • Matt

      Really? You don't think religion shapes a person's decisions? This is the one thing I know to be true about Huntsman and Romney – they believe in the teachings of Joseph Smith. So Joseph Smith's philosophy has shaped their decisions until now, are you 100% sure that their interpretation of Joseph Smith's philosophy is in your best interests? Even if you are, why would you wish that the rest of us not know? I would like to be informed when I go to the polls, and not just about the stuff you think is important, I would like to go to the polls knowing the philosophy – the reasoning behind the decisions they will make that are not yet known.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
  3. dave

    Ignorance or Inflammatory. Mormons do not practice Polygamy. Discontinued in 1890...

    June 2, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  4. Mark

    Its obvious we now have our first Muslim president!

    June 2, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
    • Mary

      President Obama has never been a Muslim, you maroon.

      June 2, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  5. NotaNut

    Mormon? More like Morons... come on, Christianity is hard enough justify. Throw in some aliens and distant planets into the mix and your going to be hard pressed to have any intelligent followers.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
    • Mo

      That's Scientology, not Mormonism

      June 2, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
    • Alyssa

      What do you people have against mormons????

      June 12, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
  6. jawon

    Obama has a proven track record now, a mile wide and 1 inch deep. Blacks don't even realize what socialism is. Look who has been hurt the worst under this administration of "never been in the private sector, but I is a professor so I knows what to be doin.' Just like the media created the perfect storm by not vetting this community organizer, the pendulum will allow 'any of the above' to beat socialism.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  7. jp rice

    I have had 2 comments deleted so far. I AM NOT A BIGOT! I lived in Salt Lake for awhile, and have worked for Mormons for over 20 years. I am only telling the truth! I will NOT vote for a Mormon......PC is stopping me from telling the truth.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  8. unowhoitsme

    A wife in every state...fair representation!

    June 2, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  9. Doug

    Why is this even an an issue? There are many politicians who pratice many different religions; so what! Isn't this America where we can worship how we choose? Shouldn't we be looking deeper into issues like creating jobs and growing the economy? Will Obama be a better President in the next round? Is this the "Change we need"? Look at Obama's track record; he's perpetuated our economic downfall. Can you honestly say that he will make things better?

    June 2, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • Doug

      Wow.. Obama is to blame for our economic down fall... ? Let me tell you first, you are a damned liar !

      June 2, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  10. Popcorn

    Does Mormon include HAROLD CAMPING?!!?

    June 2, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  11. austin

    NO we want our preident to be a Follower Of Jesus Christ, The Most High God, who is Almighty God in the Flesh, Eternal, and Equal to the Father and Spirit. Just like the good all days of America when almost all the preidents were Christians.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  12. Jimi

    I think the big question is: Would we care about the Mormon issue if CNN didn't post story about it being an issue? CNN loves stirring up its own news.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • NotaNut

      Your kidding right? Being a Mormon is a serious issue. It shows lack of rational thought and brainwashing. You really want a president who thinks his god is resting on another planet?

      June 2, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • Jimi

      Hey ANut...I mean NotaNut...that's Scientology. Everyone has their idea of where God is. So, you would rather believe that God sent his son to Earth from another plane of existence called "Heaven", a son who can walk on water, then die, then be resurrected from the dead? That's alright, too. It's all fantastic without any proof. The point being: CNN sometimes posts ridiculous stories, and this is one of them...It's sad you don't recognize that. Oh, if your (oops..."you are") going to have a user name like NotaNut, make sure you don't prove otherwise.

      June 4, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  13. Matt

    Why shouldn't religion be an issue? Very few things sum what a person thinks and believes like membership in a faith group/religion. As soon as someone says "I'm a Mormon", we instantly know what he/she believes and strives to be. Furthermore, being a member of a religion which actively proselytizes tells me (the voter) that the candidate thinks I need to be more like him/her. Is talking about religion bigotry? Is it ignorant? I don't think so. I don't believe the things that Huntsman and Romney believe. What are they first – our president or a saint? Mormonism demands religious zealotry as long as disfellowshipping is still practiced. The LDS church is a controlled community and the LDS church holds this above it's member's heads. If faced with a difficult decision, will Romney or Huntsman risk losing their community? This is the reason that it's not bigoted or ignorant to talk about religion – because it's telling of who a person is, who they want to be and what they believe to be true.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  14. tnmtl

    I am an ex mormon. DO NOT VOTE FOR A MORMON. Mormons like Romney are Mormons first and Americans second. And as nice as the missionaries' cherubic faces are, they are the biggest bunch of racists and religious bigots around. Just ask one what Joseph Smith said about ALL other Christian churches, and what it says in their canonized scriptures... And look into what Brigham Young, the former mouthpiece of God said about blacks and slaves....

    June 2, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
    • HeyMikeyyy

      At least that's better than the current fiscal idiot who has America somewhere outta his top 10 priorities...

      June 2, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
    • Nurul Aman

      As a non-believer of organized religion of any kind, I do not like to Judge Mr. Romney as his faith based affiliation. Unlike the good old days, I think majority of American voters don't care that much about his religious background. The voters care about who he is and what is his vision and quality to lead America as a great nation of the world at a time of the post 9/11 era. From his track record as the Gov. of Massachusetts, what I have noticed that he was a failed governor in the state and he couldn't get along with his colleagues to work as a team leader. So he quit without bidding for his reelection. He has proved himself as one of the biggest phony-baloney politicians and failed Governor of Massachusetts. He is one of those good Old Boys Network members, who only cares about making more money and gain power. He is the worshipper of the wealthy class (not LDS Church) and a blood sucking rich by charging high interest rates on borrowers. That is how he has made billions from his venture capital firm Bane Capital. Given his background of charging high interest rates from start up entrepreneurs, how do average Americans can trust him as a leader for the middle class? It does not take a rocket science to recognize the two faces of this opportunist Romney, who care nothing more than himself. So he is not the right person to choose for American president.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
  15. James Olson

    No, America is not "ready" for a Mormon president. Nor will we ever be, because that certainly wouldn't be a sign of progress. I'm a dem, and I wouldn't vote for a Mormon even if he or she was a dem. I also wouldn't vote for a fundamental Christian, or anyone else who interprets the Bible or any other religious book literally.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  16. Bryan

    How about president that won't ignore science to meet his spirtual beliefs.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  17. OUTrunFIELD

    No.way.NO WAY. NO. Way.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
  18. UTdoc

    How are the tenets of Mormonism any more ridiculous than those of Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims or any other mythology? Since we won't elect an atheist POTUS anytime soon, we shouldn't care about the president's religion (or lack thereof).

    June 2, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
    • Matt

      When I vote, I want to know what the person I'm voting for believes. Campaign promises are crap – they're only made so we the voters can distinguish between two probably center-right or center-left individuals. Religion matters because it IS what a person believes. It's real, not a focus group-tested campaign promise. It's what Huntsman and Romney did in their lives before the presidency was considered. If you want a succinct and honest glimpse into a person, look at their religion. Even people who pick an choose from the menu, their religion is at least what they think about, a thing with which they are content to be identified. Why shouldn't religion matter? It's the one thing that I know Huntsman and Romney actually believe.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
    • NotaNut

      True, but Joseph Smith and his followers are EXTRA crazy.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
  19. dave

    I find it really interesting that the Evangelicals get to define "Christians". Seems by definition it means someone who believes In Jesus Christ as the Son of God, believes in what he taught and that we should follwo him and ithat he is saved through the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That isn't good enought for some Evangelicals. Based upon their interpretation of doctrine and their interpretation of the BIble, someone with different interpretations is not a "Christian". Following that same logic....none of the christian sects would believe the other is "Christian"

    June 2, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
    • pretty much true

      that's pretty much true. good that we separated church and state. we can't prove that one is better than the other anyway.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
  20. Dave

    Mormonism started in the 1800s and there's plenty of records about its beginnings. Joseph Smith was a charlatan and a fraud. Anyone who can't figure that out lacks the critical thinking skills to be President, sorry. It's not an anti-religion thing, it's an anti-idiot thing.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
    • Bryan

      couldn't have said it better!

      June 2, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
    • Don

      For information on the Mormon beliefs there is a great web site that explains their weird beliefs in simple lanbguage. Simply go to mrm.org

      June 2, 2011 at 10:01 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.