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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. KJames2

    Romney is the next Reagan! Regarding references to Romney's business background: I see that as an asset of course but Mitt Romney has the ENTIRE package with a great example of the decency I truly miss in a President. The current POTUS is dangerously inexperienced, easily influenced by special interest and an economic disaster!! BREAKING NEWS – as I am typing this the latest unemployment rate just ticked up from 9.0 to 9.1. Yep, some business sense may be in order! Enough said!

    June 3, 2011 at 8:41 am |
  2. beevee

    The country will embrace a good leader without any baggage. I am not sure if Romney fulfills this.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  3. Superchik

    They all follow the same god: the dollar bill.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  4. christopher

    Well I won't vote for him. But not because he's mormon. But because he won't support nationalized heathcare. He supported socialized medicine in his state but doesn't think it's right for the country? Sounds like political rhetoric to me. I can't get behind someone who is this wishy washy. And Obama won't get my vote either since he voted to extend the Patriot act. I guess I'll just excercise my right to NOT vote in 2012.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  5. redeemed

    Mormonism is a racist religion. This will indeed work against him. Whoever wins will need the black and minority vote.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  6. Andrew

    Didn't we have this discussion already 4 years ago?

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

    If Obama was a muslim or islamic supporter.....he wouldn't have ordered the Bin Laden raid obviously !

    June 3, 2011 at 8:35 am |
    • Nine Deep

      What? I agree that Obama is not a Muslim but he does support Islam's right to exist. You obviously own a computer, so use it to look up the percentage of the Islam faith that supported Osama. It's like .01% and that is being generous.

      June 3, 2011 at 8:57 am |
  8. Amanda

    How about we have a president that ISN'T religious? I am so SICK of religion having to be the selling point or the reason any president makes a decision. We are a Democracy not a Theocracy. I will not be voting for Romney he is too much what the older generations want and out of touch with what this country actually needs. Another strike against him that he is Republican. They preach open-mindedness but only for those who think and believe like they do. I'm still standing with Obama, he's still better than any of the right-wing Republican nut-jobs that have come out of the works so far.

    PS: All the radical black Muslim comments regarding Obama are disgustingly racist and uneducated. You are the reason this country is going down the tubes.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:33 am |
    • AthensGuy

      Well said!!

      June 3, 2011 at 8:35 am |
    • Vinnie Capaselli

      "They preach open-mindedness but only for those who think and believe like they do. I'm still standing with Obama"...Amanda, you are proof that human's brains are de-evolving. Go back to school dear. BTW, did you even graduate kindergarten?

      June 3, 2011 at 8:36 am |
    • Jim

      No the reason the country is going down the tubes is because of the Democrats uncontrolled spending since 2006. You talk about uneducated bias towards teh President form some on the Right, didnt hear you complaining when all of the virile hate speach agains Pres Bush was going on, but that was different wasnt it. Heres a little lesson for you. President Barrack Hussein Obama is black, I could care aless what his skin color is, and as far as his Muslim roots ( yes he is a Muslim by birth that is a fact, whether he practices or not is irrelevant) but I could care a less if he is or isnt. What I care about is can he govern, and it is obvious he cant, he has not led on anything but reacts to everything, this is not leadership. Hillary was correct in saying that the Presidency does not lend itself to on the job training, something we are regrettably discovering

      June 3, 2011 at 8:47 am |
    • Insecure in Bel-Air

      @Jim
      Wrong. Half the debt was run up by Republicans during Dubya's foreign adventures. Why is that so easy to forget ?

      June 3, 2011 at 8:51 am |
    • Bryan

      @Jim....I'm not a democrat but how can you accuse them of uncontrolled spending when Bush started a war that has cost us trillions of dollars. Both parties need to go. Oh and I would love to see a president with no religion. G. W. Bush has said that he was in direct dialog with god. I can't wait for the day when everyone thinks that if some says that, they are crazy!

      June 3, 2011 at 8:53 am |
    • KJames2

      Amanda you are lost! CNN raised the question about religion NOT Romney. The man is a decent man, not trying to sell his religion to you. I know you may be young but PLEASE, get informed on the issues and leave class warfare to the real creeps that are ruining our country socially and economically.

      June 3, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • Jim

      @Bryan, Bush started a war? hmmm I seem to recall we were attacked forst, but hey the little incident on 9/11 was just a misunderstanding, our bad. But didnt congress authorize the actions as well? we can argue whether the focus should have been on Afghanastan or Iraq, but we had to do something and go after these idiots. All that said more money has been spent on these wasteful stimulous projects that have done nothing, than has been spent on the wars. Yes I agree we have been in the wars far too long, but i dont see Obama ending them like he stated he would, matter of fact he has expanded them and tossed in Libya for good measure. Would love to see all teh troops come home and place them on the borders. AS far as relgion goes I would be afraid of a person that didnt have some religion as a guiding principle in their lives. They can be religous without using it in their Policitcs. Romney is a solid family man and a proven businessman with a good vision, he hasnt sold me 100% yet and right now Im not backing anyone, but a couple have peaked my interest, him and Herman Caine, we shall see

      June 3, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  9. The Dude

    The Magic Mormon Underwear will protect him from being President.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  10. hebert

    Ready for a mormon president ???? were we ready for a black -muslim president?

    June 3, 2011 at 8:32 am |
    • AthensGuy

      what are you, a 8 y.o. spoiled boy?

      June 3, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • Lola

      YOU are a mormom!

      June 3, 2011 at 8:36 am |
    • hehe101

      people said the same thing about JFK.... he's the first catholic president.

      June 3, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  11. Vinnie Capaselli

    "Is America ready for a mormon president".. Why not- we elected the first MUSLIM president.
    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCAffMSWSzY&w=640&h=360]

    June 3, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • AthensGuy

      c'mon. get real... this is so 2009...

      June 3, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  12. akahn90

    Last thing America needs is some religious freak getting into office. I'm glad we currently don't have that at all. (For those that think Obama is muslim really need to get some education). George Bush was over the top as well. Leave the freaking religious BS out of our government. I don't want anyone telling me their stupid lame ass god is better then anothers. If you don't like anothers religion, then move to another nation that only dictates one religion like Saudi Arabia. In America we don't need anyones dumb gods forces upon us. So having some ultra red-neck inbreed right winged religious freak in office would put our county back in time about 150 years and we'd be another Saudi Arabia...

    June 3, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  13. What!

    John I sort of get where your coming from. I too was in a similar situation. They spent 5 minutes or so "selling the religion" as you stated. I think they went a bit to far with that one. I know all funerals tend to promote their view in ways. It's horrible they did not even mention the deceased during that half hour.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  14. Timmy Ryan

    "Is America ready for a mormon president".. Why not- we elected the first MUSLIM president.
    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCAffMSWSzY&w=640&h=360]

    June 3, 2011 at 8:28 am |
    • AthensGuy

      Vinnie... is that you again? things are to quiet in South Philly these days?

      June 3, 2011 at 8:32 am |
    • hehe101

      and your point is? I don't give a crap about a politicians religion as long as they don't support crazy anti semetic laws.

      June 3, 2011 at 8:41 am |
  15. Michelle

    Here's what I'm ready for: A president who will lead with his mind and not his ego; a president who will do what's best for this country, not his re-election; and a president who is humble enough to admit his mistakes, not call everyone else stupid for disagreeing. Whether they are black or white or indian or asian. Whether they are a man or a woman or transgendered. Democrat, Republican. Christian, Mormon, Muslim, Jewish, Athiest... If Romney has good ideas - not the promise of good ideas - he has my vote.

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

      You just described Obama.

      June 3, 2011 at 8:35 am |
    • hehe101

      If you haven't noticed..... the first term is about running for the second term (with running the country in between) and the second term is about making a change in America. It's always been like that. The second term you can worry less because you can't run for a third term.

      June 3, 2011 at 8:43 am |
  16. Mark from Middle River

    Question, if a man or woman that was a registered pedophile stepped forward and pointed at his 30 years of successful business experience, He had helped thousands of people get and keep jobs. He has stayed away from Children and promised that he will continue to keep his distance as president because he will be focusing on the economy first and for most.

    If this same registered pedophile said I have a plan that will get America back to work, lower gas prices and continued American global dominance.... could you vote for him.

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

      no

      June 3, 2011 at 8:28 am |
    • DaveNYUSA

      Why? You getting ready to announce your candidacy?

      June 3, 2011 at 8:28 am |
    • Tim D

      And your point is? With Romney in office we're much less likely to have a Clinton-or-Edwards-like scandal.

      June 3, 2011 at 8:44 am |
  17. sylvan finkelstein

    JUST WHAT THIS COUNTRY NEEDS A RELIGIOUS MORMON AS PRESIDENT

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

      Is that any worse than a Kenyan muslim ?

      June 3, 2011 at 8:28 am |
    • fred

      I don't care about his religion (although, Morman is pretty crazy) his party affiliation with greed and Glen Beck loonies is pretty disgusting. But just remember if he is a good Mormon he will never change his underwear.

      June 3, 2011 at 8:38 am |
  18. No Name

    Mormon sounds better than muslim

    June 3, 2011 at 8:22 am |
    • AthensGuy

      and yet your statement manages to be prejudiced against both mormons and muslims

      June 3, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  19. marvin

    after this one i think america's ready for anything. i mean, a radical black muslim...seriously

    June 3, 2011 at 8:22 am |
    • AthensGuy

      really? are you even in the same planet as the rest of us?

      June 3, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • fred

      Seriously, Marvin are you really that stupid or just a troll? Republicans are vying to destroy this country. Anyone with any brains knows this. After the mess W got us in it would be a challenge for anyone to get us out. That would include an ethical Harvard grad who worked his way through. Georgie boy had his presidency handed to him on a plate. He couldn't pull off a full sentence. Obama has been trying to bridge the gap with you fear mongering loonies his whole presidency. The south gets torn up by tornados Obama wants to help. Republicans want to rip out funding. How about tax the big gluttons who have the biggest tax loopholes? Republicans want to stop medicare and screw the middle guy

      June 3, 2011 at 8:46 am |
    • Jim

      @Fred, you appear to be nothing ore than a typical left wing hack. The economy was rolling along very nicely until Pelosi and her extremist views took over congress in 2006, then the economy screeched to a hault. This President has done nothing to get the economy back on track, matter of fact everything he has done has placed us further in the hole, he has accrued more debt in 2.5 years than all other presidents combined. So when i question him its not based on his race or religion or anything else, its based on his lack of skills and leadership. And by the way Obama cant put together a sentance without the aid of a teleprompter either

      June 3, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  20. Alex

    If he can be trusted to keep his faith out of the decision-making process – the whole separation of church and state – then he's no less scary than having an evangelical or Catholic or Anglican. It's when I start hearing people (admittedly not Romney as far as I'm aware) making statements like "God told me to run" that I get nervous. However bear in mind that in the vast majority of things the president still needs Congress and Senate to make law – and if there's a balance of religions and faiths elected to the two houses, that should balance up. If Romney does win, though, it'll make Jan. 20, 2013 an interesting day – will be become the first president in recent memory not to take the oath of office on the Bible? (Actually, are Mormons even allowed to take oaths? I know some religions forbid it. If that's the case will we be in for 4 years of Orly Taitz-like objections to the legitimacy of a Romney presidency? I might be wrong on the oaths thing, so I'm willing to stand corrected.)

    June 3, 2011 at 8:20 am |
    • Andrew

      Why would Romney not take the oath on the Bible? The Bible is an essential part of Mormonism and is considered sacred scripture. The Book of Mormon does not replace the Bible, it is considered to be the second witness that is mentioned several times throughout the Bible. And yes, Mormons are allowed to take oaths.

      Seriously, the ignorance about Mormonism is downright scary. Of course ignorance is what seems to fuel America these days...

      June 3, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • justinian

      Actually Mormons believe in the Bible as well as the Book of Mormon. They are Christian, they worship Jesus Christ. Believe it or not, most are less "in-your-face" religious than evangelicals. I think Romney would do great, and his religion wouldn't be a factor in his presidency.

      June 3, 2011 at 9:00 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.