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. bozon

    Ii'm not ready to have Kolob on earth yet.. it's just a slick cult selling it's self as a religion. If your not born into the cult, there's a limit on how high you can go.. don't kowtow? Lose your temple recommend.. it' so messed up in so many ways, america does not need a religious fanatic from a cult as president..

    June 3, 2011 at 12:09 am |
  2. LisaDe

    Religion aside, no, America is not ready for Romney.

    June 3, 2011 at 12:04 am |

    NO! America is not ready for a Mormon President.

    June 3, 2011 at 12:04 am |
    • John J


      June 3, 2011 at 12:06 am |
  4. John J

    If America elected a half colored man to be President I am sure we are ready to elect a Mormon.

    However, this article proves religious bias is tolerated in the left leaning press. Imagine if the article used black or colored instead of Mormon.

    Shame on you CNN.

    June 3, 2011 at 12:03 am |
    • pedestrian

      FIrst, race and religion are not interchangeable. Second, there was PLENTY of coverage on CNN and everywhere else asking whether America was ready for a black president and what an Obama victory would mean for race issues in America. For that matter, Obama was attacked for his religious beliefs – both his Christian faith and his imaginary Islamic ones. If you think that Romney is getting it worse than Obama did, you are in an alternate universe.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:17 am |
    • John J

      @pedestrian explain how race and religion are not interchangeable when it comes to bigotry are not the same.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:23 am |
    • Deke

      The President is only half-colored? Which way is this oriented? Upper-half vs Lower half? Checkered? Plaid? Spots?
      Is he paisley-patterned? I've never been able to tell.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:58 am |
  5. John

    Well! The first thing this guy said is "Obama is totally wrong with Israel"
    I didn't know Israel was top priority for us.
    I think there's more urgent things to do for our country.
    .....Unless he's trying to get help and money......

    June 3, 2011 at 12:01 am |
  6. Trevor Rowe

    How about the religious beliefs of the other GOP candidates? Why isn't that brought up? I want to move past this idea just as much as the debate of Obama being a Christian or a Muslim. How about we just get back to business?

    June 3, 2011 at 12:01 am |
  7. Rnugene

    He should have chosen Democrate party., that is more tolerant and liberal than the other, that tends to be exclusive=discriminating= partial= racist.

    June 2, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
    • John J

      I agree, as you said the Dems do have a tendency to be "exclusive=discriminating= partial= racist."

      June 3, 2011 at 12:11 am |
  8. joe451

    Your name was Patty
    but now it's Kay

    you seem to change it every day.
    Your hair was long
    but now it's short

    You say: I got it cut
    but I don't see no hair upon the floor.
    Whenever I go out with you I find out something new.

    You're a fake
    you can't conceal it

    Know how I know
    'cause I can feel it.

    You're a fake
    no rhyme or reason

    'Cause in your mind it's lyin' season.

    You had brown eyes
    but now they're blue

    Those false eyelashes that you're wearin'
    In bed this morning you called me CIyde

    Alex is the name that I go by!
    If women could be counterfit
    then you'd be it.

    You're a fake
    you can't conceal it
    . . .
    You're a fake
    I've blown your cover

    the iig is up
    'cause I discovered –
    You're a fake
    no need to hide it

    Can't change my mind
    'cause I've decided –
    You're a fake
    and I'm disgusted

    The game is through and
    you're busted

    Whenever I go out with you I find out something new.
    You're a fake
    you always have a good excuse

    that ain't no use.
    You're a fake
    you can't conceal it
    . . .
    You're a fake
    no rhyme or reason
    . . .
    You're a fake

    June 2, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
  9. JBeard

    What bothers me about the Mormon religion in general is how much they try to hide some of their more "unusual" beliefs while going about their aggressive proselytizing. Some of these beliefs include: 1) God was once a man from the planet Kolob who ascended to "godhood". 2) Mormons who live a pious life according to the church's teachings can literally become gods, inheriting their own planet populated by their spirit children. 3) Native Americans are the descendants of an ancient Jewish tribe. 4) The biblical garden of Eden is in Independence, Missouri. 5) The leader of the LDS church is a "Prophet" who can receive communication from God.
    If these are some of your beliefs that's fine, but stop trying to pass yourselves off as just another branch of Christianity.

    June 2, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
    • Larry

      What you state is absolutely true. Most people don't have a clue about this false religion. They are good, decent people who have, unfortunately fallen right into what the bible said would happen- false prophets.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:02 am |
    • John J

      All religions are based on "unusual" beliefs.

      Mormonism is no more unusual then any other religion for that matter.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:27 am |
  10. jimbo, st. louis mo

    To reply to the headline – the answer is no.

    June 2, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
  11. Papasan

    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 11:55 pm |
  12. Marty

    I'm willing to give the mormon a try.......because electing the Kenyan didn't work out so well.

    June 2, 2011 at 11:53 pm |
    • Dzerres

      As opposed to that idiot from Texas who was in charge for 8 of the last 10 years. It has worked out much better than a McCain-Palin administration would have, thank you very much.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:13 am |
  13. Kyle

    How hard would it be to get an atheist into the White House?

    June 2, 2011 at 11:52 pm |
    • Spiffy

      Not possible. Americans are too bigoted. Atheists are the least trusted people in America.

      June 2, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
    • An Atheist’s Perspective

      That would depend on how good the atheist was at pretending he's Christian.

      June 2, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
    • StupidWhinyLiberal

      No problem at all, Kyle. A bit of promotion from the fascist banking cartel and their establishment media would do the trick.

      June 2, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
    • Kyle

      I wish America could snap out of its christian capitalist wannabe eutopia. It's not working anymore

      June 3, 2011 at 12:03 am |
  14. Kris

    i don't care that he is morman...I care that he is anti gay,anti womens rights,anti immigration and anti socialist.

    I am glad to see the country moving away from the litmus test that requires a specific christiantiy (or any religion)

    to be president.

    June 2, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
    • buckcameron

      Exactly! Romney is a candidate who deserves to be taken seriously and judged on his positions and records. I would not vote for a person that has those views, but that has nothing to do with his personal beliefs which should be respected as much as mine should be.

      June 2, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
  15. Possum

    "Though Mormons consider themselves to be Christians, many evangelicals consider the Latter-day Saints to be a cult."
    Now, there's the kettle calling the pot black. Hey, Reverend, pass me some snakes and let's all do flip flops on the floor, while talking in tongues! By the way, Rapture is planned for May 21st...oops..um..no, let's reschedule for October and beg for more donations, shall we?

    June 2, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
  16. Brenda

    Most people claim to be something but if their not practicing it then they aren't what they claim to be any way.

    June 2, 2011 at 11:49 pm |
  17. Mr. Dead

    Is America ready for more than one first Lady???

    June 2, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
  18. Azshbee

    Most of these comments seem plain ignorant and unfounded by actual facts. Why not consider the positives of a candidate with a record of commitment in his personal life. Yes, it may not be in a religion that you understand or know a lot about but, that does not mean it warrants ignorant and racial comments. Why not consider the candidate for their record as a politician. Religious beliefs are reflected in politicians choices and actions, but the same can be said of any values someone is brought up with.

    June 2, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
    • StupidWhinyLiberal

      You forget that your vote is counted and discounted, even discarded, and your voice muffled, by people who would rather see you dead.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:00 am |
    • Dzerres

      Yes, so you look at those values and beliefs and make a judgement before voting. Someone who believes that Jesus walked around the Americas after his resurrection and that the American Indian are a tribe of Israel and that nonsense about the Umin and Thumin (?), you know, those silly stones that allowed to Smith to translate the golden tablets through a hot (no sh!t) giving to him by Moroni and the White Salamander (yes, look it up): when someone holds those kind of beliefs then there's a real problem.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:18 am |
  19. ThinkAgain

    Jason T: Romney is a flip-flopper and has sold his soul – just like John McCain did – in his pursuit of the White House. He keeps touting his success as a businessman, when the dirty truth is he made his money by breaking up companies, laying off Americans and outsourcing jobs.

    Regarding his "conservative agenda": Why do people want to go backwards? These conservatives want to eliminate the Middle Class; they don't think women should control their own bodies; they want businesses to act with impunity, without consequence for the havoc they wreck upon our environment and economy; they want the government to intrude in the most private aspects of our lives.

    No thank you! I want to move forward – and I sure don't want a self-proclaimed devotee of a fundamentalist religion heading up our secular government. You want to live in a theocracy? Move to Saudi Arabia!

    June 2, 2011 at 11:43 pm |
    • StupidWhinyLiberal

      There is no such thing as "secular government". There is always a religion being shoved down your throat, be it the religion of humanism or otherwise.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:03 am |
  20. Rucka

    There are so many reasons not elect Mitt-ens, the least of which are his religious beliefs.

    June 2, 2011 at 11:41 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.