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. Willow

    The problem is...a Mormon's priority is his church, not a government, not a country, nothing. His church is his first and foremost priority. How can this man be president of a country if his religion is priority? I am conservative, but I'll vote for Ron Paul in 2012.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  2. God

    I want an atheist or an agnostic as president. Please.

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

      What do you call the one you got now? You're already happy!

      June 2, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
  3. the truth

    If you want to find about how romney will rule.... ask him about the signs on the temple clothes he wears under his clothes... ask him about the secreat hand shake.... ask him why women dont have status in their church... ask him why the church only allowed blacks to join in 1973 after due pressure to conform... oh and joseph smith their leader was a freemason who stole their rituals to bring to his church...

    June 2, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  4. gonavy

    The funny thing is that the people who truly don't care about a candidate's religion are liberals.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
  5. Papasan

    Lets cover some of the GOP's recent ineffective causes.

    Birther Conspiracy, Deather Conspiracy,The newly hatched Under Pants Conspiracy, The Rapture, Donald Trump, Failure to Kill Medi-Care via Ryan Plan, Glitter Gingrich, Paw Paw Pawlenty, Brain Dead Bachmann, Whacky Palin, Tea Baggers, Right Wing Lunatics, and now the GOP is tossing out the fun sponge Mittens Romney for President.

    Mittens is an insult to the USA political process and a critical failure.


    June 2, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
  6. BgMc31

    @doug...you're an idiot. Obama didn't perpetuate our economic downfall. Bush did that and you're a fool to believe otherwise.

    As far as Romney being a Mormon, that religion has a horrible track record when it comes to race relations (especially blacks). They are very discriminatory when it comes to the LGBT community and, like Bush (an evangelical christian), put our scientific community 10yrs behind the world because of his "faith".

    June 2, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
  7. Jessica Wilson

    Happy day! They say we're normal now! Yipee! I just popped on cnn to see what was going on in the news and the "Mormon President" article came up. For me at least, sometimes its very difficult to not get defensive when you have people talking about how crazy people in your religion are. Because, correct me if I'm wrong, I don't think that I'm some wacked up devil horned seventh wife of a forty five year old man. I know that I'm a normal person who wakes up in the morning, eats toast, cleans around the house, studies for college and hangs out with friends and family. Abnormal? I don't think so. People shouldn't believe rumors in the first place. And I believe that the best candidate SHOULD win, whether or not they are LDS. People shouldn't throw out others because of religion, race, or income. Pick the best candidate for the job and respect their hard work before you throw someone under the bus because of their religion.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • Spike

      Well said, and... Unfortunately, wishful thinking…
      Maybe in a perfect world this might make some sense… but,
      When you’re done with the rose colored glasses, please pass them over to me...

      June 2, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
  8. Dingle

    The funniest thing about presidential candidates is... if they stick to what they believe in, they get torn apart. If they change their minds over time, they get torn apart.

    When will people realize that one candidate will never please everyone.. ?

    June 2, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  9. Bushcricket

    I think CNN should do a spell check and hstory check and they wouldn't have to ask the question. Spell check should read MORON not MORMON. History check should say how many MORON's are we ready to elect. I say too many already!

    June 2, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
    • AB Guy

      Bushcricket, that may be one of the most original posts I have heard in years. Kudos for thinking outside of the box on that one. You, my friend, win the prize. I'm glad to know that, even for all the misinformed posts that are plaguing this message board right now, we can rely on you to keep it real. You are truly a linguistic ninja!

      June 2, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
  10. Chuck

    Great so now we get the secret service helping them knock on our doors now. What next a Jehovah Witness prez to force us to the watch tower and ban blood transfusions? or better yet....Muslim presidents and we all beat our 14 year old wives all day....The US is going to the crapper.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  11. Jimbob

    Why is religion even an issue?

    June 2, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
  12. Papasan

    Forgive me for perhaps stating the obvious, well obvious to anyone not living under a rock, but didn't President Obama get bin Laden in 2 years of being office.

    And wasn't it Bush [GOP] who had 8 years to find and kill bin Laden but failed to do so.

    What has Romney done lately?

    June 2, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
  13. El Kababa

    I suspect that Romney spends very little time thinking about Mormon theology. He is like most Americans who give little thought to their church. Most of us repeat the beliefs of our inherited fait without giving them any thought at all. Most of us don't really use the teachings of our church to help us make decisions about daily life.

    It is not Romney's religion but his business experience that bothers me. We have way too many CEOs in this country. We don't need one in the White House. Those are the guys who are causing most of our problems. They are not the guys who are going to solve them.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:01 pm |
    • IQuestionAll

      Yeah, let's have another "community activist" instead of someone who has morals, ethics, character, integrity, or even honesty like Romney. After all, "community activists" and their CHANGE destroys America stature, hates Israel, bows down to those who hate real Americans... oh, you 'people' are shameful.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  14. Spike

    God... Please... Help... us,

    Thank you

    June 2, 2011 at 10:01 pm |
  15. Al

    If you want to read what Christians think of Mormonism, they use it's lack of any historical accuracy to strengthen their (Christian) own cause in the book "The Case for Christ" by Lee Strobel. I can't see Christians voting for a Mormon. Mormonism is too outlandish, despite any solid core values that it may have (like any other religion).

    June 2, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • El Kababa

      Surely you don't think that the Bible is an accurate record of events that actually occurred. Some of them did. Some of them – most of the important stuff, the miracles, etc. – certainly did not happen. Most of the Bible's prophecies were written well after the event had already occurred. We really have no idea what Jesus thought, said, or taught. The Christians of 200 AD or 1000 AD would certainly consider modern American Christians to be heretics. We are a nation of divorced adults practicing a religion that forbids divorce almost as strongly as it condemns the eating of pork.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  16. Ray

    Out of curiosity-can a Hindu or a Buddhist become the president of the United States?

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

      Bush was an Atheist, so why not...

      June 2, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  17. neurodetonal

    Religion is not going to balance the budget or create jobs. Shame on all the people that make a critical decision based on a single ridiculous factor. Our country is in bad shape in a lot of areas, and we need the people to contribute by making sound decisions based on multiple factors that actually matter instead of representing for the particular herd that they happened to be born to. It's just like being raised on one tough street or the other; you're either Bloods or Crips. Forget all the fairytales. We need real solutions for real problems. This shouldn't even be a topic.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
  18. Roberto

    Mormons. I've worked with several in my years. Please note the self-aggrandizing smile on their faces at all times, both in bad moments and good moments. That should tell you something. And I don't think it's because they're just "tryin' to keep a smile on their faces." They truly believe that they know something that no one else knows, and they truly feel they're 'safe', they're 'blessed', they're 'chosen', just like the Jehova's Witnesses. Only 270,000 souls will be saved. The rest of us non-subscribers are, well, you pick the word.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
  19. Craig Garner

    Mitt Romney is a solid speaker – direct to the point, who draws influence without the fluff.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  20. Xandie

    Romney's religion really isn't an issue; the problem is I wouldn't trust the guy as far as I could throw him. Doing perfect about-faces on abortion, gays, gun control, campaign finance and immigration within a very short time frame? And coinciding with an attempt to appeal to national voters rather than more liberal Massachusetts ones? Here's a guy with no convictions or spine, who threw women, gays, and immigrants under the bus at the drop of a hat. Not what the country needs.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
    • IQuestionAll

      You are the perfect sycophant. Your obvious progressive socialist view is amazing. You 'people' talk of tolerance and understanding and acceptance, but prove you are mean-spirited 'people', heartless, soulless, biased, judgmental, and single-mindedly bent on destruction of the United States. Shameful Shameful. I'm not sure Romney is perfect, but compared to your "hawaiian" messiah, I do like Romney's CHANGE. He doesn't abjectly hate real American ideals.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:12 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.