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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. JP

    Everyone take a few minutes and research the facts about Mormonism. 95% of what I hear are rumors, innuendo, or historical footnotes (that would be like holding all modern Christians guilty for the Crusades). Religions at heart may be great, but they are still run by faliable people...so, as the say goes...go ahead and toss that first stone.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
    • California Conservative

      Excellent, JP – There are MANY stones being thrown in here. I guess they aren't followers of the Bible, eh?

      June 2, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  2. Tommy D

    Was the US ready for a Muslim President?

    June 2, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • beth

      Implying that President Obama is a muslim is idiotic and downright racist. He's a Christian. First you guys had a problem with his Christian pastor, Rev. Wright, and then you call him a Muslim. Why don't you take off your sheets and look straight in the mirror for the problem with this country: People like you who don't just disagree on ideas but instead pick on people's race and religion.

      I'm an atheist, by the way. I don't care what religion a person is if he/she does a good job. And I'm really not an Obama fan. I'm just tired of all the racism and religious bashing.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  3. Up Your Rear Admiral

    Romney, the candidate of latter day incredibly stupid and gullible folk.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • California Conservative

      Another BIGOT showing it's true colors!

      June 2, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
    • California Conservative

      You must be that GEICO actor in the commercial that lives under a rock – quite a naive statement, dude!

      June 2, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  4. Travis

    I don't think this should even be an issue. JFK proved it back in the 60's when people thought he would be taking his orders from the Vatican. Granted, that was a time when religious fervor was much more subdued and apolitical. But I believe that the only reason a presidential candidate's religion becomes an issue is because we as voters choose to make it one. George W. Bush was "elected" (note my use of quotation marks) partially on the basis of his evangelical Christian background. This religious aspect of his character influenced many of his policies for better or for worse, depending on what end of the political spectrum to which you belong. Much of his support was derived from the reaction of many people to the moral failings of his predecessor, Bill Clinton. Likewise, those same expectations and perspectives were transferred to his successor, Barack Obama, whose religion has become such an issue with conservatives over his Muslim family ties, his connection to controversial Christian leaders, and the fact that he doesn't wear his faith on his sleeve nearly as much as Bush did. Any Republican challenger to Obama in 2012 will be expected to have their religious conviction scrutinized very carefully, and a Mormon candidate will be viewed as suspect by the GOP's evangelical base who – let's be honest – won't vote for someone who goes to a different church. The sad truth is that religion has been hijacked by the political elites in this country, and many of the rest of us have been stupid enough to go along with it, either by embracing these people as leaders, or by opposing them to the point where the anti-religious groups get just as bad as the pro-religious ones. The best candidate will be the one who maintains their strong faith, but won't use it as a means of social manipulation and control. Unfortunately, in our current political climate, such a candidate wouldn't stand a chance.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
  5. olibe

    Want to see his MORMON certificate

    June 2, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
  6. smallz

    hell NO!! zero pun there too.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
  7. Randy Johnson

    Oh here we go again – MORMON? is that even a religion? Kinda sounds like Muslim doesn't it? Fact – up until the early 1950's the only way a black person could get to heaven was by being a servant? But then of course the Mormon heirarchy gradually 'CHANGED' things so they would fit with contemporary times. Well – so much for Adam and Eve heh???

    June 2, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
    • California Conservative

      Sounding a wee bit bitter about something, eh? I guess you as an American, who promoted SLAVERY many years ago, shouldn't be allowed to talk, dude! I guess that should be on your conscious quite a bit that you live in a land who supported slavery and YOU are a part of it. ???? Funny comment and who is the bigot?

      June 2, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
  8. olibe

    MORMON

    June 2, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
  9. Batiste

    Yes, we are, we elected a African American, that should answer all questions regarding who we will elect. However, this Morman has huge issues with his character, which will cause him to fail.

    http://www.askfmb.com/Newsfiles/romneyidiotcomment.html?hpt=C2

    Being witty, isn't being honest.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
  10. dave

    Yes! America is ready! The Majority Leader of the Senate (Democrat) is already one. He is already one of the top 5 most powerful politicians in America, but he doesn't take any guff

    June 2, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
    • Willow

      A Mormon's top priority is his Church. Government nor his country will ever come first. Bad choice for the leader of America.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
    • California Conservative

      Willow – you don't have a CLUE what you are talking about.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
    • OldGuy

      That is the same argument used against John Kennedy, the first Catholic president. You would have thought the Pope was going to be in the cabinet and hold a veto power over Kennedy. It wasn't fact then and it isn't fact now.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
  11. Spiffy

    The real oppressed minority in the U.S are atheists. Statistics show that they are the least trusted people in the U.S. It's too bad that people base their opinions on people about which fairytale they believe.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
    • Ivan

      the poor oppressed atheists...I just read about some atheists in Egypt who's church was burned down and members killed...oh...my bad, that was the Christians.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
    • beth

      Ivan,

      Atheists are persecuted in many places. If one is a muslim and decides he does not believe anymore, this heresy is grounds for imprisonment and/or execution in many places in this world.

      Theocracy, no matter which religion runs it, is a poor governing structure. I'll take my secular government here in the US, thank you.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  12. California Conservative

    Bottom line.... between Obama and Romney? You gotta be kidding!!! Anyone BUT this clown that's in the White House now. Go Romney 2012

    June 2, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
    • Mary

      I really don't understand what all this negative noise about Obama is about. He has done more work in his first two years of office than any other president for about the last 50 years. What do you folks have against this man other than his color? Very tiresome to keep hearing this chaff without any real facts to back it up.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • Ivan

      Mary,
      His skin color has nothing to do with the mounting debt he's passed to my grandchildren and the recession that seemingly has no end. He had his chance, time to move on. If skin color is your motivator to vote, can I suggest Herman Cain? Fine canidate with real change to offer.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  13. Lineman

    While the evangelicals do not control the Republican Party ( that is reserved for the Murdock billionairs ) they make up a large block of voters. Evangelical thinking is very theological and dogmatic and Mormons are defined as non Christian in their dogma. Even if Romney did hold ideas that could solve some of this country's problems an evangelical could not vote for him because he is, by definition, not a Chrisian and therefore going to hell when he dies. How could they vote for someone who is going to spend the next 20 billion years plus in unspeakable torture. He might be a good person or even a great person but if he has his theology out of whack as defined by the evangelicals then he is done for. The vast majority of Christians don't think like evangelicals but that doesn't help Romney in the Republican Party.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
  14. taylor

    Are we ready for a Mormon,, yes. One of these two corrupt morons,,, absolutely not.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
  15. Darkie

    Sorry I just can't vote for a racist...

    June 2, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
  16. dave_in_altmar

    Just what this economy needs: Another Rich White Guy whose primary accomplishments have been selling off companies and laying off the workers. Yeah – THAT is gonna work!

    June 2, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • California Conservative

      I guess we need another 4 years of the most idiotic, pathetic, ignorant, unqualified, moron? I think not! Obama wasn't even qualified for a dog catcher but isn't it wonderful we have a black president? He's an idiot no matter WHAT color he is!!! Get rid of the vermin in the White House –

      June 2, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
    • smallz

      AMEN!!!

      June 2, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
  17. Brendan

    There is no way America is ready for a Mormon President, after the churchs intervention into Prop 8, ofcourse they want to be involved in politics. they did it in California illegallly and they willl do it again in National politics.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
  18. Papasan

    ROMNEY!

    The Right Wing Loonies / Tea baggers are riding the pet pig naked around the back yard and shaking a fist at the GOP god in the sky!

    June 2, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
  19. Dingle

    Lemme get this straight... everyone should be tolerant of gay marriage but Mormons are horrible? This country needs a serious wake up call.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • S

      I agree. I can't believe that someone's personal faith is even a legitimate issue; it does not appear to make him in any way immoral (other than the usual among politicians). I hate the question "Is America ready for a Mormon President?" We're ready for any president of any faith who will do what is best for the nation. If you're going to shoot down Mitt Romney, do it over his politics, NOT his religion.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
  20. Papasan

    The GOP's Right Wing Loonies & Tea Baggers hate Romney almost as much as they hate President Obama...

    June 2, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
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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.

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