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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. Jeff

    A person's religion has nothing to do with them being President. Well.....maybe if the nominee was a Satan worshiper or something. There is a tiny percentage of the population that likes to demonize Mormons, but we love having Mormons in our neighborhood. They are the nicest people on earth, they clean up their yards, they are extremely family oriented, and they have very diciplined children which is more than I can say for 95% of families.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Grafting

      They are also considered both "Christian" and "Protestant". This article is weird.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Of course a candidate's (professed) religion is indicative of their ability and likelihood of being president. Presenting minimal involvement in religion, just enough to satisfy most believers, is smart campaigning, what has to be done to win. Truly believing The Babble (or any other alleged holy book) and in the existence of any god, is a sign of mental illness.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • Mary had a little nail that she stabbed jesus in the throat with and her hands were red with blood.

      I'm an atheist and I keep my yard clean. Are you saying you have to believe in a fairy tale to know how to maintain a house? Are you stupid?

      January 13, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • Lifelike

      Grafting, They are by definition, not protestant as they do not trace their origins to the protestant reformation in northern europe and while they do consider themselves christian, their beliefs are much further removed from the basic tenants of Protestant, catholic and orthodox.
      Not that any of this has anything to do with their ability to be president mind you..

      January 13, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • Lifelike

      Mary had...

      No critically thinking person could have come to the conclusion you did by reading his post.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • Grafting

      Originally that was true but in modern times Protestant is used to describe any Christian religion that rejects catholic Orthodoxy.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  2. someguy

    Congratulations CNN *golf clap*

    You placed a feature story on the front page of your site that is obviously incorrect.
    Expect a visit from Ronald Reagan's Irish Catholic ghost to come and smack you upside the head.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Grafting

      Reagan was a Presbyterian.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  3. Liqmaticus

    After his insensitive remarks about envy and class warfare while many are suffering he can .

    January 13, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  4. imagine

    the disgraceful failure of obama is over its now up to historians to show what actually was.....

    January 13, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Jonesey

      And here I thought the headline was going to read something like "GOP poised to make history" in the sense of this field being the most embarrassing group of muppets in the history of politics.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • David R. Scott

      THE GOP ARE THE ONLY DISGRACE TO AMERICA... NOT OBAMA... YOU IGNORANT @SS.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      This is correct Jonesy.... if I were a Republican I could not imagine how I could look at any of these dubious candidates as my potential leader. The real problem is with Obama's record, the GOP stool pigeon they pick will most likely be leader. Sad state of affairs in a nation of 300 million this is the best you can come up with.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • sam

      A sphincter says what?

      January 13, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • Mary had a little nail that she stabbed jesus in the throat with and her hands were red with blood.

      obama is no different than these idiots.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  5. Eric

    Well now that will make an interesting trivia question someday in the future. Right along with, who was the candidate that Obama defeated to win his second term?

    January 13, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • Grafting

      Too close to call yet. All polls show it as a dead heat.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      If it is a dead heat right now with 4 months worth of Republican advertising over this disgrace plus a tanking economy and a war that has ended with nothing to gain for any average American that doesn't invest in Locheed-Martin or Haliburton then the GOP is all but dead in the water when Obama's camp gets to go into overdrive.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • Grafting

      Speculation. We won't have facts until after the primaries.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  6. ac

    "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"
    -Ron Paul is the Rodney Dangerfield of Republicans, he gets not respect-

    January 13, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  7. bj

    who cares this wassupposed to be a country of religious freedoms anyway so whats the big deal?

    January 13, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • Mary had a little nail that she stabbed jesus in the throat with and her hands were red with blood.

      Religion mixed with politics. That's the problem. I wish they'd send all the believers to Iran. Let them preach about jesus in the streets there.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  8. Jay

    CNN – your consistent bias against Ron Paul is f'ing disgusting. "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."

    January 13, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Art

      Well. Sorry Jay but most establishment Republicans really don't favor him and the Republican Party in general don't see him as much of anything. Even though I do feel that more attention should be paid to him and I don't understand, for the life of me, why a man who was tea party before there was even a Tea Party isn't being considered more seriously in this so-called "anti-establishment" wave that the GOP is going through. He's a hell of a lot more educated and insightful, that's for sure.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Top

      Ron Paul is an atheist who worships Ayn Rand.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • SteveC

      Only one candidate can be favored–why did CNN make that stupid comment only about Ron Paul? Yeah he did well in the first two races: bronze and silver, the only candidate besides Romney to get two medals. Most of the others are barely electable, and none is viable–they lack the money and organization to go the distance. They're not even on the Virginia ballot! No problem–eventually CNN will be forced to acknowledge reality.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Lifelike

      Jay,
      "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."

      Sounds about right to me.. Factual and unbiased. What is your problem?

      January 13, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  9. jemzinthekop

    Next, the just have to step into the age of reason and elect someone that doesn't take mythology as fact.... they may as well elect someone that believes in Zeus, it is all the same fairy tales.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Hemyola

      Indeed. When will we have a true thinker as a president? One who does not follow any fairy tales dogmas?

      January 13, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Jester

      You have to suspect that many of them aren't believers, they just have to pretend because the commoners would never elect them otherwise.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  10. Laura

    How is two Catholics and two Mormons a changing view? They are all Christians with the same values. As far as I am concerned, until they can elect someone without discussing religious affiliation, nothing has changed.

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

      Here here!

      January 13, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Joseph Smith

      Mor(m)ons are not Christians. Christians don't believe God was once a man.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Mary had a little nail that she stabbed jesus in the throat with and her hands were red with blood.

      Just so you know, christians don't have values, and they certainly don't have a moral compass of any kind.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      You're right Joseph Smith.... they believe a talking snake convinced a naked woman to eat forbidden fruit so she would realize she was naked, and although her and her husband were the first two humans and they had 3 sons, somehow the human race was still able to procreate. Good stuff there.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  11. dubrats

    really who cares?....well besides the media i mean.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • Solex

      Pretty much anyone in the South who considers themselves "Christian".

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

      they only care cause the media tells them too....pitiful.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  12. Gary

    Strong possibility our next president will believe that Joseph Smith was guided to a hidden book of the Bible by God in the 1800's and translated them with a divine seer stone given to him personally by an angel. Someone tell me, "IF" God had made a secret book of the bible, why did he wait 1800 years to let anyone find it? What God would give us an incomplete work for 1800 years?? anyone?

    January 13, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • John Gault

      Crazy, right? What a joke. Maybe in 2050 the headline will read "First Atheist Elected President". Then we'll base decisions on reason, thta fables....

      January 13, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • Grafting

      He works in mysterious ways. That's the standard answer.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • Gary

      Notice how the "standard answer" is always used to explain the "yea right" portions of religions. I can hear it now, 1500 years ago some 8 year old aztec kid asked his father "why do we have to sacrifice human hearts to god? what does he need them for?" Son, he works in mysterious ways.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      Gary, they are all insane. If it isn't a magic book and magic underwear it is men who lived in whales and people that turned into pillars of salt. Or Virgin births or talking snakes or water into wine (which if I had my kids at that wedding I would be quite upset because what are they going to drink now?) or 4 horsemen or parting of the Red Sea or all these other fables that people have somehow suspended any rational thinking to buy into.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  13. Me

    Come on!!!!!!! We have a freakin muslim in there right now!

    January 13, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • Solex

      Yet more proof that we would rather be entertained than informed.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • David R. Scott

      ME... YOU ARE AN IGNORANT @SS.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  14. eli

    if by making history they a mean the first non-Protestant presidential nominee to lose to a dem than history complete because our next president isn't going to one these poeple.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  15. WhoCares?

    Voting American's shouldn't concern themselves with a politicians religious affiliation any more than they should care what brand of toilet paper they use. Get religion out of Politics!!

    January 13, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • Solex

      And yet, the evangelicals have clearly stated that their only criteria for electing a president is that they are a white, christian, conservative male.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • Hemyola

      Yes. Amen.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  16. DD

    What in FH does religion have to do with good government??? I will consider Romney if he is the GOP nominee, otherwise it will be Obama again.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  17. Monique Manna

    Seriously, is it that important? Give me a break...

    January 13, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  18. Balls McGhee

    time for the religious right to vote for Obama since he is a Christian whereas Romney is a Mormon. Oh wait, they wont do that, because they put politics in front of religion anyway...

    January 13, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • John Gault

      Ha! Good one!

      January 13, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      No, I think Republicans are sticking to the talking points they learned on the O'Reilly Factor that Obama is supposedly a Muslim or something.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Jester

      Politics...or race?

      January 13, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  19. jk

    Oh, blither. A coincidence, not a trend.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  20. brian

    i'd chose adolph before i'd choose mutt romney

    January 13, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • Pick a president not a pastor

      @ Brian: You'd choose the worst mass-murderer of all time over a guy with solid principles and a solid plan for saving your nation? Doesn't say much for you. @ the mainstream media: Quit publishing crap. That is all.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Hemyola

      Yes. Romney is dangerous.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:51 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.