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. POD

    GOP to choose non next president

    January 13, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  2. Duke One

    The conservatives do not want him because he's a moderate. It has nothing to do with his faith. This is a story that the media keeps generating each election cycle. Get over it !!

    January 13, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  3. Tevii

    it would be great if we had ONE candidate that was intelligent enough to not believe any of that nonsense.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Mary had a little nail that she stabbed jesus in the throat with and her hands were red with blood.

      Wouldn't it?

      January 13, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  4. Khud

    By definition – anyone who is not Catholic (but is Christian) is a protestant. Even Mormons. It defines any religion that is "protesting" the original (as far as the world is concerned) Christian religion.- Catholicism. So if Romney wins – you still have, technically, a Protestant in the White House.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      I protest that all religions are FRAUD! Does that make me a Protestant, too?

      January 13, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • Mary had a little nail that she stabbed jesus in the throat with and her hands were red with blood.

      It doesn't matter what they call themselves. They all still believe in fairy tales and should not be allowed to run for political office.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  5. jj

    What's all the fuss about? President Obama is sure to be relected.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Crystal Ball


      You peeked!

      January 13, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      No doubt about that....between Magic Underwear Man and The Grinch.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  6. toby

    Clarke...agreed. It shouldn't matter. That's the problem with the GOP. "oooh look, he's protestant, and pro life, and a good 'ol boy." What should matter, you have to dig for. They put this crap on the news, media, internet, to get votes from the millions of idiots in this country who think it does matter.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  7. Odds

    I don't see what the big deal is. Didn't Republicans demonstrate that they can't tell the difference between a Christian and a Muslim in the last election? What does it matter if Romney's a Mormon? They'll probably think he's Buddhist!

    January 13, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  8. Mike B

    I thought Abraham Lincoln was Jewish, since he was shot in the temple.

    January 13, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Bart

      Go back under your rock.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  9. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer really changes things

    January 13, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Jiminy Cricket

      When you wish upon a star
      Your dreams come true

      January 13, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Joseph Smith

      Mor(m)onism is the only TRUE religion. All others are abominations. If you don't believe me, just pray to me and it will be revealed.

      January 13, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Bob

      Yes, it changes NOthings.

      January 13, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Tim

      If prayer really worked, everyone would be doing it.

      January 13, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      I pray every week that my Powerball numbers are correct, but god consistently turns out to be a lazy, loser, S0B!

      January 13, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • fred

      You are right, I was nothing until Jesus saved me

      January 13, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • jj

      Right-wing fundamentalist religious extremism is not healthy for children and other living things. I really don't think atheism has hurt anybody.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • fred

      Other fred is nothing but imposter.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • fred

      pick a number between 1 and 10

      January 13, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  10. DavidC54

    Gee, so republicans have now advanced to the 19th century...what progress. And people wonder why America is messed up. Romney is useless no matter what his mythology is, as the economic policies he plans on enacting are virtually identical to those of GW Bush (which practically destroyed the Country, and led to 800,000 jobs per MONTH being lost).

    January 13, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • JT

      A bunch of ultra-conservative right-wing Christian white guys. Wow...what progress...

      January 13, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  11. Mary had a little nail that she stabbed jesus in the throat with and her hands were red with blood.

    People who believe in fairy tales should not be allowed to run for political office or own businesses. They should not be allowed to manage other people. They are worthless and slow the advancement of society.

    January 13, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      But religious belief (or apostasy) is essential to political maneuvering because it guarantees a certain voter base.

      January 13, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Joseph Smith

      As I taught, god was once a man, dark skinned people are evil, dead people can be baptised, polygamy is God's will, and all religions except Moronism are false.

      January 13, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Mary had a little nail that she stabbed jesus in the throat with and her hands were red with blood.

      People who believe in fairy tales should not be allowed to vote. They are obviously mentally handicapped if they're old enough to vote and still believe in fairy tales. They are not fit to vote or perform any other menial tasks.

      January 13, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • gingerpeach

      And the Nazi belived as you do. Shame on you!

      January 13, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Mary had a little nail that she stabbed jesus in the throat with and her hands were red with blood.

      The nazis had a christian leader. I think much differently than they did, since I don't believe in your stupid fairy tale.

      January 13, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Michael

      I'd rather believe in fairy tales and die and find out they were false, than to live believing theiy're only fantasies and die only to find out it was all true. If the first scenario is correct, then I would've lost nor gained anything since there was nothing to lose or gain to begin with, BUT...if the second scenario is true, then I would've lost EVERYTHING.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Mary had a little nail that she stabbed jesus in the throat with and her hands were red with blood.

      Pascal's Wager doesn't make fairy tales true.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Mikey, what you have to ask yourself is (1) WHY these fairy tales exist, and (2) WHAT is the frequency at which (and under what circu-mstances do) such fairy tales establish themselves. Virtually every race, nationality, etc. has come up with its own deity(ies) and many of those have done so independently of any knowledge of the Judaic tradition. Furthermore, these fairy tales have their root in a TIME in which humans had a VERY LIMITED knowledge base about science. Nowadays, we are capable of debunking such myths as appear in your precious fairy tales. Why don't you try reading something besides your ancient holy book?

      January 13, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  12. Faith-Isn't-A-Preacher

    Civic values and enduring principles are borrowed by religions and secular groups to validate their existence. To claim that those are unique to any one group or organization is an affront to those very claims.

    January 13, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  13. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    Only the Republikkkans could be desperate enough to promote a Moron as their front-runner! But then they didn't seem at all fazed when George W. Dolt, who pretended to be a "normal" Christian on TV, and who claimed that "god" told him things such as that he should attack al-Qaeda and Saddam, couldn't come up with the exact location of those alleged WMD. What, "god" didn't know whether there were any WMD to actually go to war over, or "god" just wouldn't tell George?! Either way, Replikkkans are brainwashed religious idiots!

    January 13, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Joseph Smith

      Just because Mor(m)ons believe that dark skinned people are cursed doesn't mean we're bigoted and racist and Satanic...ok, well kinda 😉

      January 13, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  14. Larry in Houston

    once we get romney in, as our nxt prez – it will be all over with as far as hearing about the "mormon card" and I'm Catholic – everytime I hear a story about another priest pedophile – it makes me sick – It seems like it's all over the news for weeks, if not for months. That's when I start attending other churches – and I have the utmost respect fo those Mormons. It's not like us catholics, which most of the ones that I know of, want to get drunker than a skunk on sat nites, and then go to church on sun mornings. or else go to church on sat nite, ( for an hr) then get drunker than a skunk, Then Sleep in on Sunday Mornings, so you can sleep your hangover away. Pitiful, isn't it ? makes me Not Proud to be a catholic – Then, why are the priests are All Driving brand new cars ?? (every 2 yrs) What's up with that ? amazing, isn't it ? That's why I end up attending a Mormon Church -at least those people treats others w/ respect. (have you ever heard of a "mormon" pedophile? ) If it weren't for the "Joseph Smith" thing, I would "convert" to the LDS church, believe me. But- the bottom line : it doesn't matter Who or What type of Religion you've got – whether it being a presbyterian / episcopalin / methodist / lutheran / baptist / Or any other type or kind of Christian. They all may have different variations of the Bible – but, at the end of the day, They all believe the same thing, regarding that guy that got crucified on that cross , by his own people, for absolutely nothing, other than being a preacher. amazing, isn't it ?

    Larry in Houston

    January 13, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  15. W.G.

    Sorry to burst your Bubble but Romney is not a Christian . He´s a mormon . Now before all you heretics start jumping on me about this I got this from the Bible . The bible is our source for determining whether something is from God or satan .
    The mormons have the Bible and have added to it and have changed it .The Mormons believe that Jesus ´s brother
    was satan . Where did they get trhat out of trhe Bible ? Paul says that if anybody comes to you preaching a different
    Jesus than the one he preached then they are to be accursed .

    January 13, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • realist

      well ...if YOU say so it must be true....

      January 13, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Actually

      Read your Bible again cover to cover. You'll find most of the crazy Mormon doctrines can be found in your crazy book, including your Satan/Christ sibling relationship.

      January 13, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Larry in Houston

      You've got a real problem, there bud – I think you're smokin way too much crack, or something. WoW ! I've never heard of those kind of remarks in my entire life, and I'm 56 yrs old. I think you need to read up on other Christian Religions. Believe me, I've Been to Them All !! attended them all. they ALL are Christians, Lutherans / Baptists / Epicopalians / Catholics / Mormons / Their Bibles are Just Variations, (you nut) They ALL believe in the same guy that got hung on that Cross,2000+ yrs ago. Are you dense ? If I'm not mistaken Even the Jehova Witnesses believe Jesus died on the Cross over 2000 yrs ago. and His Own People is the ones who hung him.

      January 13, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • JH

      Jesus provided a REALLY heretical definition of Christianity for you. "By this shall all men know ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another."

      January 13, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • sam

      "Now before all you heretics start jumping on me about this I got this from the Bible ."


      January 13, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Actually

      Also, considering none of you Christians can decide what the Bible really teaches, clearly a "Book of Mormon" is needed to help clarify things. Not to mention there's no way it can be infallible as it was translated by man and there are many confirmed mistranslations.

      January 13, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • James

      Honestly, where did you get your information? The mormons did not add anything to the Bible. The Book of Mormon is ANOTHER book, not the bible. Why is this so hard for people to believe that. I have lots of friends who are Mormons, and they know the Bible better than anyone i know. If you think about it, the bible, when it was written, was not the bible we have today. A group of people many years ago, got together, took some of the writings of Christ, etc. and put it in a book. Who is to say the bible contains everything? Are you God? Why couldn't God have another book, I mean he is GOD the creator of the universe! Personally, I don't know if the Book of Mormon is true, but what I do know is they have a valid point. We should be respectful to it. I can say one thing though, is that these Mormons are good people, and Romney as president couldn't be any worse than Obama.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • JP71

      These classic anti-mormon resposes that preachers have spouting off for years. The term "add or take away" means the book of revelations since the bible was not written as a complete book but was compiled by order of Constantine.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • W.G.

      To Actually , Jesus had a brother named satan ? SHOW ME where it says that n the Bible , oh wise one . The only thing mormon in the bible is where Paul talks about that satan can come as an angel of light . like the angel moroni appeared to J. Smith .
      To LARRY IN HOUSTON I also belive that Baptist and Lutherans are Christian also what´s your point ? Catholics are not considered Christian because of Marion worship and ask any Real Christian Apologetic and they´ll say the same thing about mormons and catholics . TO JH , I also love my fellow Human beings but Paul said to test what people say and if they´re wrong tell them to repent . TO ACTUALLY You must be a mormon because Christians do know exactly what the Bible says unlike mormons who make generalizations that black people are inferior to white people . TO JAMES If you had ever read and studied the Bible you´d see where The Old testament compliments the New Testament and that it is a "Complted Book" it needs no other book to explain it . All of you need to actually STUDY what you say and quit relying
      on FEELINGS or "this sounds right " , that´s why Cults like Jehovas Witnesses and Mormons can sound so convincing
      When in reality they´re sooo Blasphemos .

      January 13, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
  16. Tim

    There have been several non-Christian presidents, including some of the greatest, such as Lincoln and Jefferson. There have been very few, if any, presidents who actually followed the teachings of Jesus.

    January 13, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  17. watergirl

    Do find it funny that religious right which goes on and on about this being a Christian nation are willing to vote for a Mormon. Who don't share the same beliefs as Protestants and Catholics do, they say Mormons are a cult. Kinda makes them hypocrites criticizing Obama, saying he's not Christian, when Obama believes in the Holy Trinity but are willing to vote for a Romney who doesn't believe in it. Wondering if a Muslim was running against Obama how they would vote.
    Pro-Life groups are you willing to vote for Romney who had allowed tax funded abortions when he was governor of Massachusetts. Obama has stricter rules on tax funded abortions in the health care bill than Romney did. Of course Romney says he is against abortions now but he would say anything to get your vote. Don't be surprised if he says he is pro-choice to get votes also.
    So if all of you vote for Romney, don't want to hear anymore that this is a Christian nation from any of you.

    I firmly believe in separation of Government and Religion. I fully support other people's beliefs or even no beliefs. I am not trying to put down the Mormon church. Just making a comment on the religious right and pro-life groups on how they say one thing and do another.

    January 13, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • JH

      Watergirl, I agree with you on the hypocricy. In fairness, we don't believe in the trinity as taught by the Nicene creed (created over 300 years after Christ's resurrection). However, we do believe that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are One God (one in mind and purpose). However, we believe they are three separate individuals as demonstrated at the baptism of Jesus and the stoning of Stephen. A very rough analogy would be if you and I both had the same CD by the same artist.... same CD... yet separate CDs.... In this sense, Jesus literally is the Father, even though he is a separate individual. We believe that Jesus is Divine, that he is the only way back to the Father and we definitely are Christian, though we don't consider ourselved "post-nicene" Christians.

      January 13, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Joseph Smith

      JH, please don't try to justify the Mor(m)on cult...we all know the average IQ of a moron is approximately 25% less than that of the average sea star.

      January 13, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Actually

      The Mormon understanding of the Trinity is certainly less ridiculous than the alternative. The baptism account via Mormons: Jesus was baptized, God the Father praised His Son and the Holy Ghost descended in the form of a dove. The baptism account via Everyone Else: Jesus was baptized and spoke from Heaven to praise Himself and sent Himself in the form of a dove, all while He Himself was still in the water.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • James

      Personally, with they way you make it sound about the Trinity... I think the mormons have a valid point. 3 people makes much more sense. Why would God be 3 people?

      January 13, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • James

      *Personally, with they way you make it sound about the Trinity... I think the mormons have a valid point. 3 people makes much more sense. Why would God be 1 person?

      January 13, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  18. JL Fuller

    I fail to see the significance of not nominating a protestant.

    January 13, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  19. Rajiv Shaw

    If this is their only claim to history, I feel bad for them.

    January 13, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  20. clarke

    Why does this even matter.

    January 13, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
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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.