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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. ulana

    Obama = 72 virgins!

    June 2, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
  2. Spiffy

    Religion is useless. Anyone who believes in God is an idiot.

    June 2, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
    • ulana

      hmmm..sounds like your mother should have had an abortion

      June 2, 2011 at 11:03 pm |
    • Spiffy

      Sounds like you are a sheeple.

      June 2, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
  3. Musse Ketema

    Mitt Romney, the next President of United States. He will be our 45 president.

    June 2, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
  4. Faithful

    Since we seem to have a Muslim president now, a Mormon should be no problem. But seriously, as long as his personal business doesn't interfere with his job, who cares? It's being a Republican that makes him icky.

    June 2, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
  5. Army

    Mormonism=keeping within the "white" klan.

    June 2, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
    • Dre

      Your comment proves you are completely ignorant if what a Mormon is and believes, and that you are just as prejudice as what you are accusing mormons of being.

      June 2, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
  6. Nick

    Baptists site "differences in belief" to justify their hate towards others, including Mormons. Dwindling collection plates are the true source of the baptists' non-Christian behaviors.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
  7. Dan Dolan

    This guy wont be the first Mormon president. He will never get the nomination. The right wing of the Republican Party doesn't trust him for two reasons; he is too liberal and he is a Mormon. They don't trust Mormons because they don't think they can control them. It's too bad. Romney is the closest thing they have to a viable candidate. The rest of the field are buffoons.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
  8. Cesaer

    ........REALLY!!!!!!!..... Next U.S president an MORMON......REALLY!!!! No way!!!! Cmon REPUBLICANS go find another George Bush ...please!!!!! No contender so far....... We have just an MORMON, OLD FA RTS AND TWO MENOSPAUSE LADIES.... good luck Republicans!!!!!

    June 2, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
  9. Army

    Mormonism is more about subtle hidden racism than it is about religion. The truth is most Mormons acknowledge their religion is a scam, but they buy into it because it's how they met their spouses.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
    • Dre

      LOL. I feel sad for someone with as much hate as you have. Do you really believe what you say? Or are you just troll'ing

      June 2, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
  10. SisterWives

    If he becomes the President, will there be multiple First Ladies?

    June 2, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
    • Floyd Johnson

      Oddly, he is among a dwindling group of politicians to have only married one time. Add in no history of marital infidelity and he looks oddly out of place in modern politics. Odd that we accept serial marriage as acceptable and condemn our most virtuous candidate for a non-existent practice.

      June 2, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
  11. Bart - Jan Scheerlinck

    This cant be a problem you're living in a free contry where the liberty of cult (religion) exists if he is cristian ,baptist ,protestant or mormon does'nt matter the only thing that matter's the future of the country

    June 2, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
    • Dingle

      It's no longer a free country... people only support people with similar beliefs. Are others are demonized. Sad really..

      June 2, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
  12. Dingle

    Isn't the real headline "Is the Electoral College Ready for a Mormon President?" – Americans don't vote anymore...

    June 2, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
  13. AJ

    .... Thought there is a thing call separation of church and state. President should not let their religious views run the country, but those of the VOTERS. Which clearly have lost any say in the matter in the last oh 40 years.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
  14. Tom

    The problem Romney has is not his religion, it's the party he is aligned with. You see, a New England Republican is viewed as moderate, which will divide the GOP! The GOP, by linking themselves to the Tea Party, has again pushed their agenda too far to the right, and while Obama may be far to the left, he has the ability to bring himself closer to the middle, while the Tea Party is entrenched in their right wing fanatical positions. Personally, I don't think Romney is that bad of a candidate, the GOP will have much worse than Romney to offer. But if he couldn't beat McCain in 08, I don't think he can beat Obama in 12.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
  15. Army

    People don't get it. Compared to other religions, Mormons really don't marry outside of their WHITE RACE. Although Mormons profess diversity, they're numbers don't prove it. Enough said.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
    • jeff

      You mean outside their family.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
    • Dingle

      Even though more than half of the Mormon population lives outside of the USA? Research works wonders...

      June 2, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
    • IcallyouknowwhatonArmy

      Actually I am white and my wife is black. I'm from Canada. There aren't many black people period in Canada. Oh and I'm a mormon. There's three other black/white couples where I attend church and I know about six others that are friends of mine. I would say that in Canada there are more mormon inter racial couples in the mormon church than is average in canada as a nation and if you follow things at all we're not biggoted racists like some parts of the states is so that is saying something.

      June 2, 2011 at 11:43 pm |
  16. jack mcghee

    I'm still stuck on Romney tying his dog to the roof of his car. How did that issue just disappear? No way I'm voting for that guy.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
  17. Big Daddy

    Why not we have a Muslim president now!

    June 2, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
  18. frootyme

    Sick, Sick and Sick. What happend to freedom and justice for all? What happend to so called separation of Church and State?
    Is Presidential position reserved for a non-Mormon, non-Muslim, non-Hindu or non-Jew? CNN – try rise to some better journalistic standards.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
  19. its me guys

    Richard Dawkins for Emperor, 2012!!!

    June 2, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
    • Anonymous

      Who the fuck are you supposed to be?

      June 2, 2011 at 11:03 pm |
  20. mary

    why not a mormon president? the one we have now believes there are 72 virgins waiting for him in heaven after he blows himself up.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:52 pm |
    • celebrite

      blatant propaganda. you should be ashamed of yourself.

      June 2, 2011 at 10:55 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.