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. amy

    Is America ready for the magical Mormon underroos???

    June 2, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
  2. jt

    mormon is better than the peaceful religion...

    June 2, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • Justhad Tosayit


      June 2, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
  3. PJ

    No! Iti ia a cult.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
  4. Dingle

    Let's see... we want gay marriage. We elect a black president. Yet we cannot come to vote for someone of a certain religion? What makes a Baptist better than a Mormon? Or a Lutheran better than a Mormon? Jew? Atheist?

    Bunch of bigots posting on here.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • Mars

      Really? So that's why we voted for a black president. I didn't realize it was the gay thing. (Half-black btw. You could have easily called him a "white" president.)

      One might think the Mormon religion is strange. How strange is it compared to what Protestant, Catholics, and Jews believe. Take a step back and look at it. A virgin birth.... Really?

      June 2, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
  5. Lindsey

    Apparently, Mormons are to the 21st century what the Jews were to the 20th. We saw how badly that ended...

    June 2, 2011 at 10:22 pm |

    I think it's ridiculous that the media is pointing out Mitt Romney's faith. It shouldn't even be an issue. I've known several LDS people in my life and all of them have been great individuals. While they are dedicated to their faith, that doesn't mean that they don't live in their secular world as well. It's time to wake up and realize that in reality the LDS church is not going to influence Mitt Romney if he ends up in the white house. The church teaches their members to be honest, virtuous and charitable. Why would anyone be against a person like that? That's hard to find these days.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
  7. John

    As referenced in the article, please vist http://www.mormon.org to get official answers from the Mormon church directly.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
  8. the truth

    mormonism and freemasons have a lot in common ... both share the same secreat hand shake..... we dont need a secreat society leading us...

    June 2, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
    • Justhad Tosayit

      With all the transperancy in our current White House policies, I guess I just have to vote and believe everything anyt politician tells me for it before i CAN READ ABOUT IT. If speech was visual, your comment sounds like a deer in the headlights!!!

      June 2, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
    • Brian

      Our country was founded by Masons.

      June 3, 2011 at 1:15 am |
  9. cteckyw

    We've had a Mormon President. Bush was a Mormon. Whoops. No. Wait! That was moron. My bad.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
  10. Prof Taylor

    Religion is not an issue. Romney will be a great President. NO MORE OBAMA!!!!

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

      Well religion IS an issue. Romney most likely won't get the job. And I'd be willing to bet $1 that Obama will be elected president for 4 more years.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • Justhad Tosayit

      Just betting one dollar? Your confidence is showing!!!

      June 2, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
  11. priestnking

    It would be hard to trust someone in office who operates in a pseudo-christian cult. The very idea that someone with his accomplishments could believe the bizarre teachings of Mormonism, puzzles me. Obviously no research has been done on his part in regards to the most important decision of his life, his eternal destiny. If one is not wise enough to plan ahead for life after earth, with the same effort one puts into any other area of life, why should we belive they know anything about anything? People plan for vacation, education, retirement etc, when it comes to eternity, they say, "I'll wait and see what happens when i get there." Now that's crazy! John 3 Be Born Again!

    June 2, 2011 at 10:21 pm |

      Mormons are born again christians. How are they a cult? They are extremely open about their faith. It's not like they build a fire in the forest and wear hooded white robes while chanting racial comments. Let's get real people; if you think that they're a cult then you're uninformed.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
    • ryan

      You are a retard and your statements are retarded. And I dont like the the guy either.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
  12. Xandie

    According to evangelical Christians' definition of Christianity, none of the Founding Fathers were Christian.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  13. Matt

    I'm sure the rednecks think anything is better than a black president. These stupid racists couldn't get over their mental handicap to make an intelligent decision to save their lives.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
    • Justhad Tosayit

      YOU ASS-U-ME???

      June 2, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
  14. Bill Fitzgerald

    Looks and sounds like some peoples pride is being tested here. Hey Xandie, you are correct. What we need is someone who can run the country unlike the idiot from Kenya. A succesful businessman comes along and still people are more worried about their own agenda and not employment and economic growth. Get over yourself or you will have 4 more years with the current ignorant, failure of a president. If you choose Obama, where will we be in 4 more years?

    June 2, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  15. Descarado

    Why not? The current resident is the best friend the Islamo-fascists ever had in The White House.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  16. rocker

    What's the harm in having a Mormon President? We have a Muslim now.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • Asklepios417

      "What's the harm in having a Mormon President? We have a Muslim now."

      I knew somebody would say that, the second I saw the headline.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
    • Justhad Tosayit

      Asklepios417, If you knew someone was going to say it because of your premonition skills and smarts! Then why can't you give them an honest answer in a civilized and logical manner? It was aq fair question and all you did was complain without answering the question!!!

      June 2, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
    • mia70

      When will you stop calling him muslim? He saw his father last time when he was 10. He was raised by chistian mother and grandparents

      June 2, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
    • Justhad Tosayit

      mia, He has had more muslim teaching and indoctrination than the majority of AMERICANS EVER WILL!!!

      June 2, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
  17. tammypetry

    I swear, if this man is elected I am moving out of the country.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • Justhad Tosayit

      You intolerants ALL SAY THE SAME THING! Quit talking and start packing!!!

      June 2, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
  18. Joseph

    This election is all just an academic exercise for the Republicans. Obama cannot be beat. No way, not even close.
    Republicans should just use the election as an opportunity to hone their skills and candidates for 2016.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • Justhad Tosayit

      It is a SAD DAY for talking heads when the democrats feel that they cannot muster anyone else in their own party to even challenge or compete against a community organizer! The democratic primaries will be BOORING!!!

      June 2, 2011 at 11:03 pm |
  19. Rock God

    Moronism is only slightly weirder than most religions. Is America ready for an atheist president???

    June 2, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • Rye

      No, America isn't. But I am. Shoot, I'd vote for the first guy to just admit he wasn't sure.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
  20. dave

    absoutely not! Non whites and women are held in the same esteem. If you read their official talks...maybe women are esteemed more than men

    June 2, 2011 at 10:19 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.