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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. No Name

    Boy, next they will run a catholic, and then what will happen?

    June 3, 2011 at 8:20 am |
  2. jimmy

    Why not? We now have our first black gay muslim president who believes that 72 virgins are awaiting once he blows himself up.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:17 am |
    • Bob Loblaw

      shut up TROLL

      June 3, 2011 at 8:23 am |
    • th

      You are a total Moron

      June 3, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  3. ROCKWOOD

    Based on my personal and business experiences with Mormons in Phoenix, I wouldn't vote for a Mormon.....sorry. They are more judgmental than a Southern Baptist on Sunday.....

    June 3, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • AnnieM

      Amen to that!

      June 3, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  4. Reality Check

    “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,”

    When did Southern Baptist become a branch of the Republican party? It's been half a century since Kennedy and they still oppose a Catholic in the White House too.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:15 am |
  5. Sean

    Two words: "Hell No!"

    June 3, 2011 at 8:14 am |
  6. Timmy Ryan

    "Is America ready for a Moromon president'? I don't see why not. We elected the first Muslim president..

    June 3, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • Superchik

      You're comment makes it clear that, not only do you not pay attention, but that you like spreading lies. Good job!

      June 3, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  7. Doug Ericson

    Nope. Doug.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:12 am |
  8. Tony

    Romney is the best the GOP has at this time and I think the eventual GOP candidate. Most of the rest are outright clowns. I won't vote GOP anyway, but Mormons, by and large good people, are not nation leaders. If you believe in a religion based on visions seen in a hat, that's a show stopper for me.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:12 am |
  9. NSL

    I don't care what religion he practices.

    I do care that he supports a corrupt LDS organization. I do care about his view of the Bill of Rights, the economy, health care and women's rights, all of which are bankrupt, in my opinion. I wouldn't vote for this man for any position in government. I'd sooner vote for a cartoon character.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:11 am |
  10. tenman

    I don't trust anyone who ascribes to that silly made-up cult, and don't want anyone that stupid running the country.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:10 am |
    • AndyInAtlanta

      I find it interesting that so many "enlightened" people would not vote for Romney because he's a Mormon. Such bigotry. It's completely equivalent to those who wouldn't vote for Obama because he's black. I respect folks who listen to the message a candidate brings and decide their position relative to that message. If you're just judging the book by its cover, you're both a bigot and a fool.

      June 3, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  11. MauiBear

    It's not his faith that scares me. It's the direction that this country is taking to the far far right. It's all about big business, taking rights away from citizens, doing NOTHING to save the environment, and putting EVERYTHING on the backs of the poor and elderly. And on a broader comment, I am GREATLY disappointed that the 2 parties refuse to work together to "COMPROMISE" to get our house in order. It's not about religion. It's about greed and power. The folks in the Senate and House are NOT listening to the people who voted for them, who are telling them it is time to fix the messes we are in and work together instead of doing everything in their power to refuse to meet in the middle.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:09 am |
    • lonemountain

      We can't get any farther to the radical left than we've gone with the idiots we now have in the WH nd Senate!!

      June 3, 2011 at 8:15 am |
  12. Tom Bishop

    The US is about as "ready for a mormon president" as a person is ready for cancer. Want to make this country even more hated for it's stupidity then elect a mormon president you might as well be electing Tom Cruise president since they both follow really stupid religions that hold about as much water as a strainer. Aside from pseudo religion associations, Romney himself has "flip-flopped" on about a million issues and at one point was for abortion not too long ago. I'm all for equality of race and whatnot but when it comes to really stupid people like the republic cesspool of nominee hopefuls, I could care less. The real thing we should be worried about is the senate.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:09 am |
  13. JOE

    MR. ROMNEY SAID PRESIDENT OBAMA FAILED AMERICA BUT HE DIDN'T EXPLAIN IN WHICH WAY THE PRESIDENT FAILED AMERICA. BUT WASN'T PRESIDENT OBAMA ELECTED TO OFFICE TO CLEAN UP THE EIGHT YEAR MESS THAT MITT ROMNEY'S REPUBLICAN PARTY CREATED FOR AMERICA? SO IS CLEANING UP THE GOP'S MESS WHAT YOU WOULD CALL FAILING AMERICA? AND BY THE WAY, WHICH PARTY IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE TWO WARS OVERSEAS AND THE WORST ECONOMIC CRISIS IN AMERICA SINCE THE GREAT DEPRESSION? AND WHICH PARTY GAVE OSAMA BIN LADEN A SLAP ON THE WRIST AND HIS PROTECTION IN PAKISTAN BEFORE THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION GOT RID OF HIM? AND DOES THE REPUBLICAN PARTY HAVE THE RIGHT OR THE LEGITIMACY TO QUESTION THE LEADERSHIP OF THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION WHEN AGAIN IT IS THE REPUBLICAN PARTY THAT HAS FAILED AMERICA FOR EIFGT STRAIGHT YEARS? I BELIEVE MITT ROMNEY NEEDS TO GROW UP AND GET A HOLD OF REALITY.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:07 am |
    • RCinSC

      People who continually blame the "other" party while refusing to acfept any really scare me. Are you really so simplistic as to believe that just one party got us into this mess? That just tells me that you are just another political kool aid drinker and no different than the tea partiers I am sure you hate. They ALL got us into this mess!

      June 3, 2011 at 8:12 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Good post RC

      June 3, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • Insecure in Bel-Air

      Thanks for shouting.

      June 3, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  14. kookoo larue

    The thing no one ever asks is what do members of a particular religion believe and how do those beliefs reflect on the mind of the person? All religions are full of unsupported, irrational claims. But Mormonism is worse than most, since it's so recent and is so clearly just the creation of a 19th century huckster. If Romney genuinely believes the blatantly idiotic claims of his church then that does not speak well of his ability to clearly think through issues.

    Another question that few ask is where Romney was when the Mormon church held official positions of racism just a few decades ago, when we has an adult and his father was a higher up in the church. The Mormon church was openly, blatantly racist and only discovered some sort of holy premonition to change their policies when it became untenable to keep them. (I think the issue was BYU getting kicked out of the NCAA for the racist policies? Something mundane like that.)

    Unfortunately we don't seem to be at risk of getting a president who doesn't believe in fairy tales any time soon. But at least we can ask real questions.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:06 am |
  15. RCinSC

    Why do we continue to discuss this? I am a Christian, but I am going to vote for the most qualified person to run this government. That goes beyond religion. Besides most politicians claim to be whatever they believe will get them elected while living a lie. At least Romney has taken an unpopular stand and refused to cave. He could lie and say he was something else like most of the others but he hasn't . You have to respect him for that...even if you disagree with him.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:06 am |
    • NSL

      If his stance is lunacy does it make sense to respect it and him because it's unpopular. I don't think so. I think that's lunacy too.

      June 3, 2011 at 9:02 am |
  16. Mary Norg

    They can't do any worse than the other candidates..and at the very least they are all about saving, and being financially sound. Don't spend what you don't have...they are probably the best hope.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:05 am |
  17. Skata Pousti

    Romney is high and above the best and most presidential choice for President. He has experience, great management skills, flexibility, and class.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:03 am |
    • NSL

      He and his father supported racism as they fully supported the policies of the LDS church. Are you telling me that's high and presidential?

      What that really is, is about as low as one can go.

      June 3, 2011 at 9:05 am |
  18. Zedag

    The United States of America is not a corporation. We are not a business, whose citizens are simply workers to be downsized.

    I have NEVER understood the propensity to describe running the country like running a business. The friggin' country is not a profit and loss ideal. There is NO company in the entire world that would compare to the US. How does running a p*ss ant little capital company compare to the entirety of America?

    Bush was famously the 'first MBA president.' How did that work out for us? I don't want a %$#ing CEO, I want a president.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:03 am |
    • Skata Pousti

      Relax dude! CEO and biz management skills translate well to the Presidency.

      June 3, 2011 at 8:06 am |
    • RCinSC

      Yeah, and political organizers and lawyers have been just great for the country. You have to realize that the federal gov't IS the worlds largest corporation. You have to ru nit like a business in many ways...or even your own home. What do you do when you run out of money? Do you "raise your debt ceiling" and continue to spend? I would guess not. A guy with some good business sense would do us a lot of good.

      June 3, 2011 at 8:09 am |
    • Skata Pousti

      ROMNEY RULES! REST OF THE PACK DROOLS!

      June 3, 2011 at 8:09 am |
    • Zedag

      OK, relaxing. But I think the business cloak the Republicans wrap themselves in is odious. I could agree that the business metaphor isn't such a bad one, what makes it particularly galling is that they then make very un-businesslike decisions. Examine the business record of our previous "CEO":

      1. Get job as CEO, check bank accounts. Woohoo! We're flush!
      2. Initiate move to immediately cut revenue streams from lucrative businesses. (ie. tax cuts)
      3. At same time, don't pay much attention to threats to "the business" (eg. Al Qaeda) and take huge losses (9/11) as consequence.
      4. Initiate huge campaign to destroy direct threat to "the business." It will cost billions. How to pay for it? Charge it to the corporate credit card!!
      5. Initiate another huge initiative to destroy imaginary threat to "the business." It will cost more billions. Won't fit in the budget. OK, charge it!
      6. Both initiatives overcome and almost destroyed by rampant cronyism, indecision, and incompetence. Cost of both initiatives now in the trillions.

      So how do we protect ourselves from such business like decisions?

      June 3, 2011 at 8:10 am |
    • Sam Drake III

      So rather than balance the budget or make a profit, you accept throwing 1 trillion plus down the drain.

      June 3, 2011 at 8:10 am |
    • Zedag

      But RCinSC when families run out of money, they increase revenues (take another job) and the do raise their debt ceilings (car loans, mortgage loans, raid their home equity, run up credit cards, etc). So I disagree with the statement that "families" do not continue to spend, they do and rack up massive amounts of debt. Really have no decent answers for lawyers and politicians, they are not doing very well either.

      June 3, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • Zedag

      But consider this. while I can agree that some aspects of government can be run like a business, many aspects cannot. such as the people part. People are not products that when they become defective, they are thrown out, or too expensive so we drop them off the business plan because they are hurting the bottom line. We can't automate people, some of the most expensive are the poorest poor, the oldest old and the low functioning, or chemically dependent, or mentally ill or subisizing profit turning corporations with more money (they don't really need it, seriously). Because many people are expensive do we stop serving them?

      June 3, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  19. Jeff Brown

    Are we ready for a woman, black, latino, gay president? In this society that strives for equality, what does it matter? Bash my statement, but it is the truth.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:03 am |
    • LasPas

      Will his magic underwear keep us safe? If so, I'm all in

      June 3, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  20. Marie

    I wish they would make the Presidency more like the ultimate managerial job. It is a managerial job. Get rid of the political parties entirely. Quit making religion a litmus test. In the workplace, if you discriminate against someone's religious or political beliefs, you can be fired for that. We need to end the two party system. It is only hurting America now.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:01 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.