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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. Duane - St.Pete FL

    20 years of Obama listening to the Rev Wright spew his hate for the man with Obama nodding in the pews and you all are afriad of a Morman?

    June 2, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Nurse Lisa

      Repugs vacillate between worrying he is a radical Christian or a muslim despite his many interviews to the contrary – but fail to address whether they'd feel comfortable with this Mormon who has his own plan for healthcare

      June 2, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  2. mb2010a

    I think Romney's real challenge will be from Republicans themselves and not so much from the Democrats. The far right will never vote for a Morman...

    June 2, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  3. Jacob

    America was not ready for an Evangelical president, but somehow we ended up with one for EIGHT LONG YEARS!

    June 2, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  4. JLS639

    Kennedy was Roman Catholic and Barrak Obama is black. There were some who said both were unelectable.

    I agree with the book Freakanomics on this one: often when someone is from an "unelectable" group (say, for example, an atheist today), it is simply because nobody from that group has run for office who had broad appeal. Today nobody would say a Roman Catholic was unelectable because of Kennedy.

    If Romney has what it takes, he has a credible shot at the Presidency regardless of his religion.

    June 2, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  5. Bryan

    Is America ready for a Mormon president? My response: Why not, we already have a muslim one now. A cultist would be no different.

    June 2, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • ItSOnLyME

      What planet are you from? What evidence is there that Barack Obama is Muslim? And even if he is, SO WHAT!?!? I don't care if he's a druid. He's doing a fantastic job. Take your racist crap and crawl back under your rock.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • NOo..oON

      Aren't there some birth certificates you need to be screaming about?

      June 2, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Bryan

      What in my remarks was racist. Obummer's actions speak much louder than his words. I am neither a racist nor a birther. Stop drinking the cool aid.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Henry

      @Bryan

      They are coming to take you away ha ha, they are coming to take you away ha ha. Hummmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Henry

      @Bryan,

      Actually nothing in your remark is racist. Your remark is just plain dumb.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • Bryan

      Furthermore after many years of experience, I have learned not to listen to what politicians say because they all (R and D alike) lie-including your messiah. I watch their actions instead. He is known in the arab world to be a muslim. Several leaders in the middle east have already publicly acknowledged that he is a Muslim. He celebrates muslim holidays while ignoring Christian holidays. To his credit, he doesn't try to force islam down our throats. However, he sure has it in for Israel like the other muslims do.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • Bryan

      They probably will someday come and take dissenters away hey...hey. Bush and Obama have done a lot to take away our freedoms.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  6. Jacob

    that depends...is this Mormon leader ready to embrace ALL faiths, creeds, colors in America?

    June 2, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  7. Kikimira

    No no no no no no no no no no. Next, Tom Cruise will be running and replace Congress with Xenu. No no no no no no no no no.

    June 2, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  8. doctore0

    The man is totally delusional; Have you checked out the mormon religion; It's like "The master of the universe" on LSD and PCP

    June 2, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • RAMBLE3144

      Of course no Mormon. After all, CNN wants Obama. So, CNN will do anything to tear down any candidate.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Splitting hairs? Aren't all religions delusions?

      June 2, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  9. SaranoH

    I don't doubt Romney's leadership abilities. I do however, have a problem with the LDS belief that a man can become a god in the next life. I wouldn't want someone who holds that belief to be the President of the country.

    June 2, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • Bryan

      They also believe in indian tribes and cities that never existed, that Satan was Jesus's brother, and that the current native Americans are descendants of the Jewish race.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  10. Bob223

    America was founded on the principle of government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Forget what is "Politically Correct" and do what simply is "Correct" for the majority of the citizens of the United States. The two party system helps keep things in balance and keeps the democracy working. But in the end drop the politics and just do what is right!!

    June 2, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  11. Will

    Just what we need, more Morman hate

    June 2, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  12. Brandon

    The mere fact that this article is being run by CNN (mirroring exactly the news media 3 years ago) is just ridiculous. When will the media stop displaying such an obsession with Mormonism? Hasn't the subject of Mormonism been picked apart for years in the news media, to the point where non-Mormon journalists (and their readers) might know more about aspects of Mormonism than Mormons themselves do? Stop beating a dead horse. It only reflects either the lack of intelligence and adaptability in the news media or the continuous, unabated ignorance of many of us Americans.

    June 2, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Tippet

      Whine much?

      June 2, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  13. gmccyclist

    I consider myself to be a main stream Christian and not evangelical. I don't consider those of the LDS church or spin offs to be fellow Christians even though they include the name Jesus Christ in their official name. While they embrace many positive family values, they are a cult. Joseph Smith essentially did the same thing that Mohammad did. He came up with his Book of Mormon much like Mohammad came up with the Koran. Both re-wrote history to support their new religion and both consider their religion the only path to paradise for the muslims or some special planet for the mormons. In the christian (including catholics) bible, Jesus warns of the false phophets that will follow. Joseph Smith and Mohammad are two of those who established cult like followers. I cannot support any candidate who is a member of a cult, be them a mormon or muslim. I realize that the President would necessarily be in a position to actively promote Mormonism, but believe a Mormon president would be a subtle way to promote the cult and increase their power. They are a very wealthy group. Their political power in Utah is incredible. It is more like a theocracy.

    June 2, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Brandon

      I must correct you because your comments indicate that you have never been to Utah or spent significant time there. It's only about 50% Mormon now, and most politicians either are not Mormon or are Mormons in name only, but are like so many other Americans, and only go to church on special occasions. It's far from the theocracy that you say it is.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Ruth

      Christianity is as much of a cult as Mormonism and Islam.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  14. Jason in Mormon AZ

    I'd like the dollar figure the "church" in Salt Lake has poured into this candidate, please.

    June 2, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • ShiningLight

      $A.lot

      June 2, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • zyxwvu

      None

      June 2, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • LazyAye

      I've calculated the total (including what the Mormon church contributed to his last campaign). It comes to $0.00.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
  15. JP0

    I don't think the Republican base can accept Romney's religion.

    June 2, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  16. Anaid

    It doesnt matter what religion he is. Is not like he will be preaching out of White House. Jeez, give the friggin religion a break.

    June 2, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Moshe

      Poor, downtrodden you, eh? What a baby. Religion is bullshlt and anyone who follows bullshlt is fcked in the head.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  17. L Brennan

    PS/ Right-'winged' born-agains, do however make a difference. In my experience, they are quite a bit removed from what I perceive to be the teachings of Jesus: inclusion, non-judgment, kindness, and most importantly,helping those who cannot help themselves. They would not get my vote.

    June 2, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  18. Nurse Lisa

    I don't know if all American understand enough about the Mormon faith to have it affect their voting; I personally believe Mormonism is full of odd beliefs and errors contrary to the Bible's teachings but I have no idea how serious Mitt is about his faith. I typically vote for unashamed candidates who profess having accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior,

    June 2, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Nonimus

      ...regardless of whether they are the best for the job?

      June 2, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • JK

      Explain yourself please. State concrete examples instead of conjecture. Or are you just another person who nothing of what they're talking about, spreading lies and falsehoods.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • eyeofthestorm28

      Nurse Lisa – This is stupid thread for this intelligent man who wants to manage America but he's a Mormon! Who cares if he's a catholic or baptist or mormon. Mormon is full of odd beliefs and errors? What make you think your faith is more sensible than the Mormon's? All organized religion have the same basic belief, God...period.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "Mormonism is full of odd beliefs"
      miracles
      virgin birth
      saviors
      divine revelations
      angels
      talking snakes
      etc.

      but that covers most Christians too, I guess.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • Nurse Lisa

      this is why I said I PERSONALLY BELIEVE – I have studied Mormonism's beliefs and find them severely lacking in light of my Christian faith. I didn't ask anyone else to believe what I believe though I take it to be true. Some things I've found – Christianity believes in one God, LDS in many gods. Christianity says God is a spirit, LDS that He has a physical body. Christianity says God is eternal, LDS that He was created.Christianity says Jesus is eternally God, LDS that He was just the first of many sons. LDS teaches humans pre-existed as spirit beings and that they can become gods. Sorry if anyone else does not think these are odd beliefs that do not line up with the truth in the Holy Bible, but it is my opinion.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  19. james gordon

    The christian community already said obama was the anti-christ , So,maybe it is only fitting that it be THEM who votes for the anti-christ.

    June 2, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      You are making the mistake of thinking that all Christians are the same. They are not. The Fundamentalists are the ones that cause all the grief and would call someone the Anti-Christ. They probably want him to be the Anti-Christ so their crazy world of marching to Armageddon can come about. I cannot see Fundamentalists, who believe that the Bible is the only source of truth and facts and that even more modern translations are of the devil accepting a Mormon. It goes against everything they believe. Moderate Christians, the ones who cause no waves and are too cowardly to stand up and say the Fundamentalist are not US, might vote for a Mormon if his values match theirs.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • Henry

      @CalgarySandy

      Your post is probably the most profound I have read. There are plenty of moderate Christians (mostly Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, and Anglican) who are doing God's work. The problem, as CalgarySandy points out is that these moderates are also cowards who don't expose these Fundamentalists for what they are. Judges and haters.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      Thank you Henry. Being raised and abused within the "loving" confines of a very right wing Baptist Church it was years before I discovered what the bulk of moderate Christianity believe.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  20. James

    CNN trying to drudge up some good hate posts? Romney would sell out his religion to become president. So why does anybody care. If he were a Democrat it wouldn't be as big a deal. You never hear about Reid being a Mormon.

    June 2, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Nurse Lisa

      ... because Reid isn't running for president.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Henry

      Yup, Reid is not running for president. Mitt is running and he deserves all the scrutiny that the Repubs gave President Obama. Republican sheep. Praise the Lord but hate your neighbor. American Christians are no different from the violent Muslims.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      American Fundamentalist Christians are only interested in one thing: Getting themselves into Heaven. They are the ones who are little different from violent Muslims. Not a one of these people is trying to make the world a better place for all human beings. Fundamentalists even think it is acceptable to destroy the Earth as Jesus will get here before that happens. I quote the Baptist Church I was forced to go to until I ran away at 17. They are not loving and they are not good citizens. It is all ALL about getting into heaven. This should generate loving behavior toward others and especially to the vulnerable. Moderate Christians don't speak up against this terrible behavior. There is no reason for their fear. They could stand up and be counted and say that Jesus was a loving man of peace not a butcher without compassion. Moderate Muslims stand up quite a bit more to say we disagree but not enough. Why, they actually do have something to fear. Radical Muslims will cut them down just as fast as they do Christians.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • Nurse Lisa

      It doesn't make great sense to expect moderate Christians to try to correct all bad behaviors from every other religion. We must remember who benefits from division. The devil subtracts and divides – God adds and multplies. Lumping ALL fundamentalists together is a huge injustice; saying only moderate Christians do God's work is not true. I have no easy blanket explanation for how some "unloving poor citizens" controlling a Baptist church yrs ago could have so hurt Calgary Sandy she needed to run away at 17, but I hope she finds a way to forgive rather than letting her hurt keep her prisoner.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
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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.