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January 13th, 2012
10:59 AM ET

GOP poised to make history with non-Protestant presidential nominee

By Josh Levs, CNN

(CNN) - The race for the Republican presidential nomination is on track to break new ground: For the first time in modern political history - some say ever - the GOP nominee could be someone who is not a Protestant Christian.

Front-runner Mitt Romney is Mormon, as is Jon Huntsman. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are Catholics.

The only two Protestants in the race are Rick Perry and Ron Paul. Paul had strong finishes in the nominating contests so far but most political experts and Republican establishment figures say he is not favored to win the nomination ultimately. Perry has finished near the end of the pack so far but is hoping for a strong finish in the next-in-line South Carolina primary.

Neither major party has ever had a Mormon nominee. John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, was the only Catholic president.

Democrats have also nominated John Kerry, a Catholic, and Michael Dukakis, who is Greek Orthodox, but the overwhelming majority of Democratic presidential nominees have been Protestant.

Experts who follow the intersection of religion and politics say this year’s crop of Republican candidates reflects the changing electorate, the lasting significance of a Supreme Court decision, and shifting forces within American Christianity.

“Catholicism has been almost fully absorbed into the American mainstream,” says William Galston, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.

While Kennedy faced questions from some voters over whether he would take orders from the pope, that kind of skepticism is virtually unheard of today, Galston says.

“The more interesting question is Mormonism. Because in many Protestants’ eyes, Mormons today stand roughly where Catholics did 60 years ago. They are suspect.”

But Romney, with his “unblemished personal life,” is in a unique position to help guide Mormonism into the mainstream of American politics, Galston says.

Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley says Americans have achieved enough comfort with Mormonism to make room for a possible Romney presidency.

“Are we ready for a Mormon president? I think the answer is yes,” Brinkley says.

The Mormon population is growing quickly, and more and more people have Mormon friends, he says. “It’s no longer a fringe group growing up. It’s a powerful and important religion.”

Mormons have been recruiting Southern Baptists and Methodists to join their fold, making inroads in communities across the country and raising money, Brinkley says. “The Mormon Church is booming when some of the other denominations are struggling for cash and converts.”

Mark Silk, professor of religion in public life at Trinity College, says most American voters are “prepared to think about people who are not Protestant to be president.”

The GOP field of candidates this year is “mostly happenstance” – the contenders did not rise to the front of the pack because of their religions, Silk says. But the fact that their faiths don’t seem to be hampering their chances shows “real growth in the acceptance of religious pluralism since World War II.”

There’s also a broad political force helping bond voters across different denominations.

“In the past generation, denominational differences or religious differences have become less important than the split between modernism and traditionalism within each religion,” says Galston.

“So at this point, traditional Mormons, evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics have more in common with one another politically than they do with the more liberal elements within their respective churches.”

That break has been furthered as the issues that guide many voters’ decisions have changed over the past few decades.

“One of the big things that’s happened since the 1970s is that a lot of cultural issues have moved from the private realm to the public stage,” Galston says. “That’s happened whether it’s been abortion or gay marriage or the treatment of private schools by the IRS.”

It’s happened “much more explicitly on the conservative side than it has on the more liberal side,” Galston says.

The Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which said women have a constitutional right to an abortion, was a turning point.

Before that ruling, Catholics were a solid, reliable Democratic voting block, “one of the most powerful constituencies in the Democratic party,” says Brinkley.

The Vatican opposes abortion rights. And as the Democratic Party became largely supportive of the Supreme Court’s decision, the Republican Party won over Catholics who disagreed with it.

“It turned a lot of Catholic groups from Democratic to Republican,” Brinkley says. “It flipped them.”

People within each denomination who support abortion rights and take liberal stances on numerous issues, meanwhile, have formed similar bonds on the Democratic side, with religious denominations themselves playing little role, the analysts said.

About half the U.S. population is Protestant. The American Religious Identification Survey from Trinity College, published in 2009, found Protestants are 51% of the U.S. population, while Catholics are 25%. Mormons are at 1.4%, just behind Jews at 1.8%. Muslims comprise 0.3% of the population.

While a Mormon or Catholic nominee would be a first for the GOP, there’s some disagreement over whether he would be the first “non-Protestant” ever, or just the first in generations.

A December article for rollcall.com said “Gingrich’s nomination would make him the first non-Protestant to be nominated for president by the GOP.” A 2000 Slate article headlined “The Protestant Presidency” said Kennedy was the only non-Protestant “ever elected president.”

But Silk noted that it isn’t clear exactly how to characterize Abraham Lincoln’s religious affiliation.

The first Republican president “didn’t belong to any church, wouldn’t have described himself as a Protestant,” Silk said. At the same time, Lincoln expressed a deep belief in a God who is active in history.

Adherents.com keeps a list of the presidents’ religions. Four presidents were Unitarians, a movement that grew our of Protestant Christianity. Two presidents were Quakers, a group that is connected to Protestantism.

While the analysts CNN spoke to agree that the GOP field this year reflects the country’s religious pluralism, it remains centered only on Christian denominations, setting aside the question of whether Mormonism fits a traditional definition of Christian.

Just how much of a chance a candidate of another religion would have at the presidency is another question.

Some believe that Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000 who ran for the party’s nomination in 2004, was not hampered by being Jewish. “I don’t think that the classic triad Catholic-Protestant-Jew makes a difference at all,” said Galston. “Joe Lieberman’s candidacy foundered, but not because he was Jewish.”

But there has never been a Jewish presidential nominee. And just how a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or member of any other religion would fare is another question.

For some voters, the denominations of the candidates continue to be a relevant factor, the analysts said. Last May, a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that about one-third of white evangelical Protestants would be less likely to vote for a Mormon.

In Iowa, CNN entrance polls show that born-again or evangelical Christians supported Santorum, a Catholic, well over Romney.

In New Hampshire, CNN exit polls from the Republican primary show that Catholics and Protestants both chose Romney over the competition. More Catholics – like voters in general - supported the two Mormon candidates, Romney and Huntsman, than the two Catholic candidates, Gingrich and Santorum.

Paul, for his part, came in second in New Hampshire, and placed second among Protestants and tied with Huntsman for second among Catholics.

Analysts agree that a candidate who does not believe in God would be quickly rejected by voters nationwide – even if he or she was raised Christian.

“Whether anyone would accept a professed out of the closet atheist, no,” said Galston. “You’d probably have a better chance as a former member of the Taliban.”

Weigh in on this story at Facebook or Twitter.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Politics

soundoff (951 Responses)
  1. iceload9

    Colbert fulfills all the GOP criteria. He's run before and has name recognition.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  2. rob

    Neither party will nominate an atheist or agnost. So you can think that is a Republican thing, but that would be a real short cut to thinking.
    Maybe atheists or agnosts should start another party.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Patrick

      Every Atheist I know is an independent or a Democrat. Not one is a republican though. I’d fully support a moderate secular party.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • g.c.kells

      I'm an atheist and a registered Republican, and i know plenty of others, maybe you need to widen your social circle.

      January 14, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  3. Kurt Kammeyer

    Bobby Jindal is of Hindu parentage, but converted to Catholicism. Is that close?

    January 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy one

      His real name is Piyush and he likes to attend catholic exorcisms.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  4. Tom Kurtz

    There have been several Episcopalian Presidents,and depending on who you ask,some Episcopalians consider themselves Protestant and some don't. It can depend on your individual take on our Anglician-Catholic traditions.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  5. Mormon God

    I have done good works therefore I am like God

    January 13, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  6. TheFatherofLies

    Baby steps. Only when the GOP nominate an atheist or agnostic will I be mildly impressed with their "tolerance". I could be waiting a few decades.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  7. Randy, San Francisco

    Simply amazing...this coming from the party of intolerance and conservative evangelical Protestant sharia law with a strict purity test.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  8. rob

    Morman's are only Christian in the aspect that they except JC as their saviour. Then they fall off the deep end and think that it takes works to get to the three heavens. Yes three different heavens. The top being a heaven where you are God and you have your own planet!

    January 13, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Patrick

      That is no more ridiculous than believing the entire world was once flooded. That one man and his family built the ark. That two of every plant and animal boarded the ark. Had enough food, clean cages and climate control, ect .ect…

      January 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  9. First Cult

    First Cult member nominated

    January 13, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  10. PizzaWolf

    why does this matter? i mean, from the statistics it obviously doesnt matter to the voters, except the born again community.
    shouldnt we be discussing and compairing their platforms and debating quality...maybe touching on who would best serve under the pressure and corruption of the office? or who would best deal with the unknown things that will arise during the next 4 years? i guess that news is more boring than the latest gossip of who's sniping who with what, and what church they go to on sunday.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  11. JTorres

    Mormons ARE Protestant.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Ironicus

      In much the same way Scientologists are Protestant, yes....

      January 13, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Real America

      I think they have to be Christian first before we can sub-classify them. Is it generally agreed that they are Christians?

      January 13, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • First Cult

      To be Christian you must believe that Jesus is the only son of God

      January 13, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Real America

      But then we have a lot of explaining to do, First Cult.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Kurt Kammeyer

      No, Mormons are not Protestant by definition. Protestants "protested", or broke off from the Catholic Church centuries ago. Admittedly, the definition has become somewhat murky since then, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not an offshoot of ANY other established faith. Rather, we believe it is the "Restored" church that Christ organized in the first century AD. The distinction can be a bit confusing sometimes. And yes, we do believe that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God, which sounds like the definition of a Christian faith to me.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • CypressSteve

      @JTorres: Mormons may be viewed by some as Protestants, even as Protestants against Protestants. But Mormons do not see themselves this way. Mormons see themselves as Restorationists.

      To all others that make the claim that Mormons are not Christians, I must ask: What gives you the right to determine who is Christian and who is not? If you tell me you are Christian, I accept that you are because I have no way of judging what is truly in your heart and mind. Perhaps that is why we are counseled not to judge others. Isn't it time that we drop the sad old song of "My Jesus is better than your Jesus?" It simply isn't relevant in the context of selecting a POTUS.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Normon

      "And yes, [Mormons] do believe that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God..."

      But what about Jeffrey, the only misbegotten Son of God? Everyone always forgets about Jeff Christ.

      January 13, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  12. Chuckles

    Difference between Dems and Repubs.

    Dems: Going from a nation that owned slaves to electing the first black president in a short time.
    Repubs: Making waves by debating whether to nominate an old crusty white guy who believes in jesus from their normal pool of nominations of old crusty white guys who believe in jesus christ but slightly differently.

    WOW! HISTORY IN THE MAKING!

    January 13, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Real America

      A Republican freed the slaves, but what have they done lately?

      January 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Chuckles

      You mean the same republican who was an advocate for big government, liberal values like freeing slaves and was from the North? Yeah, something tells me that he might have ran under the republican ticket but that party morphed into what we now call "democrat"

      January 13, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • J.W

      I am not sure Lincoln would be a republican if he were still alive today.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • todd in DC

      JW, Ronald Reagan couldn't be the republican nominee today. He raised taxes and increased the size of government.

      He was not the greatest president, but he would have been called a liberal by the teabaggers.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Real America

      Lincoln in 2012

      January 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Real America

      Sorry, OBAMA IN 2012

      January 13, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Devon

      God do I hate when people say Obama's black; HE ISN'T. The only way he's "black" is he has darker skin than white people do. He acts white, speaks white, grew up in Hawaii, was raised by his white mother, and was the senator of Illinois. Heck, I'd argue he doesn't even look black; he looks middle eastern if anything.

      But I do agree the Democrats have pushed the human race forward where the GOP has not only been stagnant but doing so intentionally.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • DanM

      You do realize Republicans were the ones that passed all those Civil Rights acts, correct? There was very strong Democratic opposition to all the Civil Rights Acts. Republicans also were the ones that overwhelmingly voted in favor of creating MLK Day.

      Democrats have somehow warped people's minds into thinking they were the ones that championed Civil Rights. Far from it. In fact, it is well argued they have greatly hindered the black community with social programs.

      Also Reagan was not for big government, he was for Keynesian economics and was following the principles of Keynesian economics. He had all intentions of re-shrinking the government but the Democratic Congress got in his way. He had made a deal to spend money to bail the US out of a recession as long as Congress agreed to cut spending back to normal levels as soon as the recession was over (Keynesian ideal). The Democrats agreed and then turned on him when the time came to cut spending. The deficits that were racked up were because of the Congress, not Reagan.

      January 13, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Chuckles

      @Devon

      He had a black dad, end of story. Just because he doesn't fit your stereotypical view of what a black man should look like, act like or speak does not take away from his genetic heritage.

      @DanM
      Dude, only the name has changed when it comes to politics and to say that it was the republicans who were the ones to push through civil rights is looking at history without understanding it. It was the southern democrats who tried to block civil rights legislation and it was the baptists who led this front. Take a look at where the republican party now mostly resides.....the south, and who are some of the biggest supporters of the republican party? Baptists. Dan, just because they were called republicans at the time in no way means they had anything in common with modern day republicans (except the name obviously).

      As for your Reagan diatribe, it's no one's and everyones fault. Reagan may have THOUGHT he knew what he was doing, but that doesn't mean all his policies would have succeeded had they come to fruitiion.

      January 13, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  13. Portland tony

    And this makes a difference? Your headline should read 'For the first time in history, the Republicans are poised to nominate a blithering idiot for President" The least of the Republican's problems is the religious tag hung on their candidate. I see no strength of religious belief, character or wisdom in any of my "former" party's candidates. Just a bunch of pandering sycophants.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Ironicus

      You are forgetting Bush Jr and Reagan.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  14. Doc Vestibule

    GOP CANDIDATE QUIZ:

    Do you believe in God?
    a) yes
    b) absolutely
    c) fervently
    d) all of the above

    Gay marriage is:
    a) an abomination condemned by God
    b) a threat to the sanciti.ty of the family
    c) icky

    The best Scapegoats are:
    a) illegal immigrants
    b) terrorists
    c) atheists
    d) "THEM"

    If elected, I would deny rights to:
    a) gays
    b) atheists
    c) immigrants
    d) anyone with a median infcome less than $100,000
    e) human rights are a privilege, not a right

    God is:
    a) omnipotent
    b) omniscient
    c) omnipresent
    d) on my speed dial

    January 13, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • momoya

      Will you act like another country going to war for another god is ridiculous and then 12 seconds later, and with a straight face announce that the US is going to war with that country based on your god's private instructions to do so? Yes, President Bush, I'm looking at you.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • TheFatherofLies

      Like

      January 13, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Awesome

      Hilarious and yet so true!

      January 13, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  15. William Demuth

    Trading one cult for another is now somehow progress? What a sham

    These lunatics have shown their true colors!

    January 13, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  16. Reality

    Protestant, Mormon, Catholic, it makes no differences. Why?

    (only for the "newbies")

    Why the Christian Right no longer matters in presidential elections:

    Once again, all the conservative votes in the country "ain't" going to help a "pro-life" presidential candidate, i.e Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Newton Leroy Gingrich, Ron Paul or Rick Santorum, in 2012 as the "Immoral Majority" rules the country and will be doing so for awhile. The "Immoral Majority" you ask?

    The fastest growing USA voting bloc: In 2008, the 70+ million "Roe vs. Wade mothers and fathers" of aborted womb-babies" whose ranks grow by two million per year i.e. 78+ million "IM" voters in 2012.

    2008 Presidential popular vote results:

    69,456,897 for pro-abortion/choice BO, 59,934,814 for "pro-life" JM.

    And all because many women fail to take the Pill once a day or men fail to use a condom even though in most cases these men have them in their pockets. (maybe they should be called the "Stupid Majority"?)

    (The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the Pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and S-TDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or condoms properly and/or use other safer birth control methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.)

    January 13, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Kurt Kammeyer

      There is a bright side to Roe v Wade: The pro-abortionists are commiting cultural suicide by not carrying their children to full term. Eventually they will all die off, and the Catholics, HIspanics and Mormons will rule the land. It's simple demographics.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Bruce

      @Kurt: Right, because everyone knows that children follow the examples of their parents to a T and never deviate from them politically or in how they view the world...

      January 13, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  17. Nonimus

    "You’d probably have a better chance as a former member of the Taliban."
    Sounds about right. I can hear the believer's justification now, "At least he has faith."

    January 13, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  18. I'm The Best!

    " “Whether anyone would accept a professed out of the closet atheist, no,” said Galston. “You’d probably have a better chance as a former member of the Taliban.” "

    Wow, I'd say I'm surprised but knowing the unwarranted hatred towards atheists, I'm more just sad. Come on America, grow up.

    January 13, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • White

      athiests are being hated? they are being hateFUL! the namecalling goes two ways. in no way are they the poor, unfortunate victims of hatred.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  19. momoya

    That last paragraph is an eye-opener, or at least it should be. An overwhelming majority of the U.S. Politicians are believers, and of those, most of them are christian or pseudo-christian. Hopefully a non-protestant will be the GOP nominee, and hopefully the more quirky views of his religion and his detractor's faiths will come under the national microscope. I'll see your holy underwear and raise you a talking donkey and a plethora of Jewish zombies at the moment of Christ's death. (Matthew 27: 52)

    January 13, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  20. Ironicus

    The GOP is "poised" to make more bad choices. It is their only consistent characteristic. All the rest is just details.

    January 13, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • The Way It Is

      They don't have a good choice. They have already seen to it that.

      January 13, 2012 at 11:58 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.