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. Tim

    Who cares? We haven't had a real candidate since the early 1800's. What we need is a middle class President that will fight for the middle class. None of the potiental candidates will do that. So get ready for the same thing wether it's a Dem or Republican. I for one have no faith in our government.

    June 3, 2011 at 12:34 am |
    • Shaun O

      Well said. I agree.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:50 am |
  2. Michael

    As an Atheist I don't give a crap about what religion a candidate is. I do find it sad that here in America we have to ask crap like "Is America ready for a Mormon president?". If you base votes depending on a persons religion, you are a complete idiot and shouldn't be allowed to vote.

    June 3, 2011 at 12:31 am |
  3. phonehome210

    I'm ready for an Athiest president.

    June 3, 2011 at 12:31 am |
  4. Bubba

    America thought they were ready for a muslim socialist from Kenya, why not a mormon ?

    June 3, 2011 at 12:28 am |
    • Lean6

      I'm gonna be thinking about people like "Bubba" beating their wife and kids and throwing tobacco spit filled beer cans at the tv after we re-elect President Obama to a second term.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:35 am |
  5. TANG

    "Is America ready for a Mormon president?" How about a president that deals in reality, has that question ever come up? A president at the world as it is, not as it is explained by those that believe in myths and fables. Wouldn't that be a better place to live??? A place that saw people as people and not as one sect or the other??? There are no gods!

    June 3, 2011 at 12:27 am |
  6. OpenMynd

    I have a feeling that most people saying "NO" have never even met a Mormon or they are former Mormons themselves. I, having been a Mormon myself (and saw through all the stupidity in its beliefs) can say, "Get over it!!!"

    The church might be weird, but the vast majority of Mormons are good, honest people. As for Mitt Romney, he's a politician. He'll be just as twisted as any other presidential candidate whether they're Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, Mormon, Jew, Muslim, Wiccan, Atheist, etc.

    It doesn't matter if America is "ready" for a Mormon president. If the Mormon candidate is the best suited for our particular situation, then elect him. Otherwise, stop being bigots judging people based on their religion.

    June 3, 2011 at 12:25 am |
  7. eric

    his Mormonism is less exotic, but still stupid

    June 3, 2011 at 12:23 am |
  8. g

    Wow. CNN is sooooo Liberalistic and biased. Who cares? Obama has in his background muslim islamic religious beliefs though he claims to be Christian? The NEWS is that he announced. CNN used to have a palce in the world for news, no your ratings suck because guess what, people want to know what happened in a journalistic sense, stop creating something where it;s not.

    The question is can he LEAD, or not? Can he fix the economy? Can he manage foreign policy?

    Stop fawning over Obama and the left candidates and get to reporting like you did in the 1980's.

    June 3, 2011 at 12:22 am |
    • Lean6

      Yo G, you might want to notice that this is a belief "blog" page that you're riding your journalistic principle high horse through.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:40 am |
  9. Thomas

    Mitt !
    Why didn't any of your four sons join the Military ?

    June 3, 2011 at 12:22 am |
    • Michael

      I served in the Navy, not everyone NEEDS to serve to prove patriotism, get over it. It doesn't make me more American than you just because I served.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:34 am |
    • Lean6

      Michael, no it doesn't make you more American, but we don't really want to go there do we...after the GOP/Teabaggers have done absolutely nothing but try to change history and reality about the president's birthday? The nature of the right wing is war mongering. It's quite logical to question their personal committment to those ideals when they consistently reveal a profile not only void of military service or sacrifice but painstaking efforts to avoid service of self and family.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:46 am |
    • Michael

      @Lean6 I give the kids benefit of the doubt as well as our government officials that see themselves serving this country better as a politician than a soldier. Everyone has their own lives and goals and fact of the matter is, the vast majority of American's ratio wise have not served, and that is just fine with me.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:50 am |
    • Lean6

      @Michael, I just find it highly unlikely that a household preaching of patriotism, sacrifice, military strength, projection of power, and defense of freedoms doesn't even produce a one-tour Supply Officer or a Public Affairs Officer in military uniform. You just have to wonder what the dinner table conversations were like. It's the consistent lack of service combined with the wanton threat and use of force that just makes you scratch your head.

      June 3, 2011 at 1:02 am |
  10. JH

    The fact that Dan Gilgoff call him Mormon shows how little he knows about "Mormons" ha ha Dan check your IQ first for writing anything else. Your article should read "Is the US really ready for anyone in the media to have an IQ above 25?"

    June 3, 2011 at 12:22 am |
  11. snor

    We had a moron president, so why not a mormon?

    June 3, 2011 at 12:19 am |
    • Lean6

      Yes. GW was quite the maroon. That doesn't mean the GOP/Teabaggers should have another crack at the White House with another one.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:49 am |
  12. shawn

    wow was a kiss a@# article, is the writer running as VP. Do your research on this great religious powerful cult before you do this fluff article, research how they have treated others in the past and how they ignore issues in the present, how they have gained political power, and how they have backed many lobby groups and so called family values groups. This is a cult period a very anti gay anti women cult, and I love how nothing about the true history of this cult was printed was a smuck piece.

    June 3, 2011 at 12:19 am |
    • Thomas

      Shawn, you're wrong. On all levels.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • Northeast PA

      Shawn, you are corect on all levels.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:39 am |
  13. trixen

    I totally couldn't care less about the president's religious views. He could worship bunny rabbits for all I care. Why does the president's religion matter so much? It shouldn't, really. As long as he knows how to keep church and state separate and understands that HIS views aren't necessarily our views, then why does anyone care? Does a person's religion really affect his or her ability to perform the duties of the office of President? Kennedy had to put up with the same rap being Catholic. It's sad that so many Americans are shallow enough that they might actually be persuaded not to vote for a person solely because he has different religious views. It's a silly discussion that takes our attention away from the issues that matter (economy, education, national security, public safety, foreign policy, etc). Who cares if or where somebody goes to church? It's insignificant.

    June 3, 2011 at 12:19 am |
    • Elizabeth

      It's sad how much religion does influence voters. It was considered a scandal when JFK was elected first Catholic president, a branch of Christianity. It's really sad that so many believe that only protestant Christians are capable of ruling our country. The least likely candidate to be elected president in the future? An atheist. It's sad, because just think of all the bright people who we are losing out on, solely because of their faith/lack of.
      We are not a Christian country. Religion is separate from state. And no our founders were not all Christian. It's time we stopped acting like one.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:35 am |
  14. Karen

    The USA needs someone who is capable of leading the country. Being a Morman has nothing to do with ability and it would sure be better than having a Rev Wright follower.

    June 3, 2011 at 12:19 am |
    • Lean6

      I can barely eek out 5 hours in a night, and here people like you have been asleep for going on 3 years. If you folks ever emerge from your slumber, you're gonna have an Austin Powers experience, finding that a lot has happened in 8 years.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:53 am |
  15. blah

    In this case the conservatives think religion should not matter. However, if you are a democrat and have a name that sounds muslim, even if you are not, then religion is an issue!!!!

    /sarcasm off

    June 3, 2011 at 12:17 am |
  16. Mike in SA

    Wow...after reading many of the comments here from so called intelligent individuals, I weep for this country.

    June 3, 2011 at 12:17 am |
  17. Registered Republican in Utah

    Not to mention a sudden revelation by their prophet that polygamy was wrong. This was convenient because abandoning the practice was a condition by the federal government to grant statehood to Utah.

    Lamanites or black people as the Mormons call them, had been cast out of heaven by God. But then in the 1970's a sudden revelation by their prophet that admitting blacks to their priesthood for the men was also convienient because pressure against discrimination was mounting.

    They have a family genealogy library and resources to trace your family history. The purpose is to find dead people to baptize as Mormons. Jewish religious organizations have had to repeatedly ask the LDS Church to stop the practice of baptizing deceased Jews.

    June 3, 2011 at 12:15 am |
    • Matt

      Wow, there are so many things wrong with your post I'm not even sure where to start.

      First, no prophet ever received a revelation that polygamy was wrong. A revelation was received that it was no longer required, but never that it was wrong. There a big difference there.

      Second, Lamanites are not black people. They are one of several groups that originally inhabited the American continents. Last time I checked, those where Latinos, not African Americans.

      Third, they were not cast out of Heaven. I have no idea where that came from, but it is not a belief held by the LDS church.

      Last of all, the LDS church has honored the request of the members of the Jewish faith for years. It did take time, as one would expect due to the need to filter through millions upon millions of records. Not to mention the fact that many of these records were provided by members of the church who had a Jewish lineage and therefore had every right to submit those names.

      You sir know absolutely nothing about what you speak. Please educate yourself before speaking again.

      June 3, 2011 at 12:35 am |
  18. Mike in SA


    June 3, 2011 at 12:14 am |
  19. Rob

    oh puhlease... the media, and the libbies, think Americans are idiots... if we're ready for a "black" president, then we're most certainly ready for a Mormon one...

    June 3, 2011 at 12:14 am |
  20. RG

    This is so unfair. Why don't they start every Palin story with, "Ready for Another Moron for President?" The media hates Romney even though he is the front runner and the most capable candidate the Republicans have. As a Democrat, I can't wait to see Palin run, but I think it is a disservice to this country when the public isn't given an honest and balanced view, apples to apples, simply because we'd rather watch a train wreck than a real exchange of ideas.

    June 3, 2011 at 12:11 am |
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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.