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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. Davis Bradley

    Someday all Americans (and hopefully the World) will be Mormon.

    June 3, 2011 at 7:27 am |
    • SickAndTired

      Religion means nothing. People should focus on the candidates policies.
      Stop being such a tool for the media.
      Ron Paul is the best politician this country has right now.

      Ron Paul 2012.

      June 3, 2011 at 7:37 am |
    • questioneverything

      Attention folks you heard it hear from mr bradley hide you daughters the Mormons needs more wives!

      June 3, 2011 at 7:52 am |
  2. Gullible christians

    Those gullible christians will NEVER vote for him!

    June 3, 2011 at 7:27 am |
    • Craig

      If Fox News and "Rush" tells them to, they'll jump off a cliff.

      June 3, 2011 at 7:37 am |
  3. Mike

    I'm ready for an atheist president.

    June 3, 2011 at 7:23 am |
    • RCinSC

      Why? What does being an atheist add to a persons ability to lead...or to do anything better than someone who does believe in God? Thats just nonsense.

      June 3, 2011 at 7:25 am |
    • Truth

      hahaha, i was JUST about to write that. time for rational decision making!

      June 3, 2011 at 7:28 am |
  4. RCinSC

    Let's see a Mormon versus a Muslim? White versus black? Repub versus Dem? NOPE. This next election needs to be based on ideals and policies, not more smoke screens. Romney has proven to be a good leader and problem solver. If you compared his life resume and Obama's there would be no comparison. Obama has never DONE anything or led anything. His horrible job as President to this point shows that clearly.

    June 3, 2011 at 7:21 am |
    • Craig

      Hey RCinSC, get over the civil war already with your filthy racist propaganda about Obama being a muslim. He's FAR from that and even you are likely not ignorant enough to believe that despite being bathed in racist right wing propaganda either on the radio, Fox News, or your klansman, treasonous and secessionist forefathers.

      June 3, 2011 at 7:31 am |
  5. RichP, easton, pa

    Yea, it might be a bad thing to get one in office with good business qualifications, morals and ethics. Especially since all the others we've had have done so well up to and including our current commander in thief.

    June 3, 2011 at 7:21 am |
    • Craig

      Tell us about the morals, RichP... tell us about the republican values of raping the poor, the elderly and middle class in the single-minded pursuit of getting multi-millionaire tax rates lower than anytime in almost 80 years. Tell us about the "christian morals" of the modern republican party, their fear and hate baiting and constant lies.

      June 3, 2011 at 7:35 am |
  6. raka

    Hey CNN! What religion is your CEO?

    June 3, 2011 at 7:20 am |
  7. questioneverything

    Mitts campaign promise two new wives with every vote!

    June 3, 2011 at 7:20 am |
    • DougM

      I couldn't even handle one!

      June 3, 2011 at 7:33 am |
  8. DougM

    Evangelicals who believe that the Mormon Church is a cult or false religion because they do baptisms for the dead, must have never read the Bible where is says in 1 Cor 15:29, "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?" It's unfortunate, but the false religion is the evangelicals who don't follow the scriptures.

    June 3, 2011 at 7:20 am |
    • RCinSC

      blah blah blah...do we really have to beat this stuff over and over and over??

      June 3, 2011 at 7:23 am |
    • raka

      Ur funny.

      June 3, 2011 at 7:23 am |
    • Davis Bradley

      I would agree. Evangelicals simply do not follow the Word of G*d. They have created their own religion that is not based on Scripture but instead is simply a political ideology.

      June 3, 2011 at 7:30 am |
    • Bob

      Religions are a cult Doug. The only difference is perspective.

      June 3, 2011 at 7:30 am |
    • questioneverything

      What about some wacko who wanted have many wives and wanted to marry children who wrote his own bible not a cult?

      June 3, 2011 at 7:58 am |
  9. Kukulcan

    Noooooo. He will remove all of our Holidays. He will outlaw Christmas and Halloween.... nooooooo. I don't really give a cr@p. HAHAHA

    June 3, 2011 at 7:19 am |
    • Jay

      Mormons celebrate all holidays. You are thinking Jehovah's Witnesses.

      June 3, 2011 at 7:46 am |
  10. Ron

    I'm ready for an non believing President.

    June 3, 2011 at 7:19 am |
    • CSMinDC

      You have one now. Words and actions are two different things. BHO does not believe in a deity. He believes in himself.

      June 3, 2011 at 7:25 am |
  11. J Jones

    BLUF– Mormons are not Christians; they are a heretical sect
    like Arianism of the first few centuries.

    June 3, 2011 at 7:18 am |
    • Quantum Gravitational Fluctuation

      Was hoping for a bit more than that, but the above post was one of the only ones which opens the discussion of why this group is considered as "heretical", by "mainline" academics. The process by which christian communities came to that judgement is interesting, and applies here.

      Then there is the whole Joseph Smith thing, which is utterly preposterous. See : http://www.bookofabraham.info/

      June 3, 2011 at 7:42 am |
  12. raka

    Why is CNN so obsessed with religion? I remember CNN attacking bush for being a Christian and praising Lieberman for being a Jew. And of course they had to waist everyone's time trying to figure out if Obama was a Muslim or a christian. Enough already. Grow up CNN! Let's discuss the ISSUES!

    June 3, 2011 at 7:17 am |
    • Insecure in Bel-Air

      CNN obsessed with religion ? OK. Scroll up to the top of this page. Now what do you see ? Does the word "religion" appear there anywhere ?
      See ya.

      June 3, 2011 at 9:02 am |
  13. Tired of Media

    Ofcourse CNN would have this headline, I just wonder if they would have the same headline about a Muslim!

    June 3, 2011 at 7:16 am |
  14. Hugh George Gazim

    A Moron President? What would be so shocking about that? We had 8 years of that already. [2000-2008]

    June 3, 2011 at 7:15 am |
  15. questioneverything

    Sorry religion has no business in politics especially a False religion why dont we just elect the crazy doomsday preacher. Not ready to be a 10th wife or wear magic underwear.

    June 3, 2011 at 7:10 am |
  16. Lou

    Really? We are back on this crap again? Of course CNN folks are the ones to bring it up the next day, to make an issue on a non-issue. Libs are so focused on religion/division yet they're the ones who are supposed to be "big tent"...sure

    June 3, 2011 at 7:08 am |
  17. Virginia Weddington

    I don't care what a candidate's religion is. If the person can do the job, elect him. Religious bias has no place in whether or not someone makes a good candidate–neither does race or gender as far as I'm concerned.

    June 3, 2011 at 7:08 am |
  18. Rob

    I prefer an individual with guts and a backbone. This moron has neither.

    June 3, 2011 at 7:00 am |
  19. johnmenacherjr

    No I am not ready! to much religion in politics!!!

    June 3, 2011 at 6:56 am |
  20. Tired of Corrupt Govt

    If he can stop illegals from coming here, and can balance the budget.......I don't care what religion he is!!!!

    June 3, 2011 at 6:53 am |
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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.