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.
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.
This article is a big lie. I'd vote for a Mormon over a Catholic or Evangelical anyday. The Mormon GENERALLY is more honest and trustworthy than either of the other two. And that's a fact.
With a name like ElreySMITH you are hardly a good place for an unbiased opinion.
That is Bad News from CNN. Why should the religion matter? What matters is the work he is doing. Does CNN think George Bush did better job as a United Methodist follower? The News article makes no sense at all => Nonsense !!
It makes perfect sense if you think about it for more than 1 minute. I bet you didn't get further than the first paragraph.
Thumbs up to you my friend.
Romney will be president when MORMONS have a black prophet.... not happening
You had me until the sarah palin thing. Now I see the your "truth" is a myth.
The question is, is America ready for a republican president? And the answer, a resounding no. Not after "W" decimated the country with his endless wars for Halliburton.
Can I have an Atheist President :S
You'd have to get one from an atheist organization. You might want to ask first.
@ Supra – cheers!
why can't people just focus on what the guy has to say rather than what he is? i don't care if the President is Mormon or Hindu or Buddhist, just fix the economy!
You'd throw everything out the window just to have money? People like you got us INTO this mess!
Sorry... Why care? Religion has nothing to do with presidency.
Really? I am smelling either a self described "agnostic" or a moderate christian.
no thanks. They do not follow Christian teachings. They believe the American Indians are the ancient Hebrews. They also believe when they die they each own their own planet and they become like God. Absolute trash and anti Christian. No amount of special underwear will give one faith to run this country. Only faith in a YahWeh.
i agree with you. ^___^
One thing for sure, they don't want a "Catholic President", the secret elite killed three of them: JFK Sr., RFK, JFK Jr.
Read Jesse Ventura's books.
I'm ready for him.
Ready to take it up the a**? You might want to use "protection" if you hadn't thought of that already.
Hell no! Talk about a wacky bunch of freaks. The mormon temple is strewn with satanic/masonic symbols. Ron Paul is our only hope!
I'd really rather we just elect an atheist person, somebody who honestly just relies on reason. It's the most honest position.
Yep.. it's a well known fact ALL Atheists are fair, honest and logical. Sheesh... what a joke.
I didn't say all atheists are honest. But the position they're starting from is. There's no falling back on myths, it's all real.
As an atheist, I agree. But I also think we'll see a Mormon and quite frankly, an actual Muslim, a woman and a minority woman before that ever happens. As soon as we see a black, lesbian, Muslim, female president....I think we might be almost ready for a regular old atheist. Or at least one that is out of the closet. I do believe we've had a few already (shhhhhh!).
Evidently YOU do. You cared enough to post something, eh?
"Is America Ready to Judge a Candidate on Merits Alone?" - Nope.
'Merits' include their belief system.
Here's an internet quarter. Don't spend it all in one place.
Romney thinks he has a chance because if they elected Obama they will elect anyone.
"Is America ready for a Mormon president?" I have a question too. Why all of a sudden religious preference is a matter of discussion in our religion free country?
Obama's religion, Romney's religion...
We do not care what a person's religious preference is. We care if he can get the job done.
Apparently for all the hand-wringing done over Obama being a secret Muslim sent from Kenya or perhaps a madrassa in Indonesia – yes, we very much do care what our president's religious preference is. 🙂
Excuse me? Momonism is more than a religion to it's followers. I am not ready to elect a man who will take cues from a "prophet" in SLC, and please don't say he won't. If you say that you are either a Momon apologist or just clueless, period.
@Frank S. Yes we do and yet are NEVER likely elect an atheist. Strange eh?
Being a Mormon is less of a dealbreaker now because folks truly honestly believe Obama will send this country to hell in a handbasket if he gets reelected, and the only way to stop that from happening is to pick the lesser of two evils. If you replayed the 2008 election this year Romney would still get laughed off for his cult membership.
What a load of crap CNN... If someone was running that was Muslim would you even dare run a headline like this??? The answer is NO and why wouldn't you?? Because you would be scared to offend Muslims. This headline is so bigoted it is sickening. So what's your headline going to be for the Obama 2012 presidential run – IS AMERICA READY FOR 4 MORE YEARS WITH A BLACK PRESIDENT? CNN, you make me sick.
I totally agree. CNN get your act together.
Sorry to inform you that your comment is actually more bigoted than the headline. You are transparent. I bet you would sell your tokens.
Thank you very much!
This article is nothing short of religious bigotry on the behalf of CNN.
CNN is run by bolsheviks and neo-bolshevik sidekicks. They know they can get away with all kinds of anti-white rhetoric. Don't worry – white America is listening and taking notes from the shyster CNN goons.
@ElreySmith You are so clueless it's scary.
at least some people think clearly and arent blinded by fear and hate. good comment
@stone Belief and non-belief matter. Deal with it. Is America ready for a Mormon president? It's a valid question. The answer is no. Deal with that too.