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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. Gavin Ford

    Why not an agnostic or atheist? You know, an intelligent person who actually thinks and who hasn't been brainwashed.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • fred

      Yep Stalin, Mao and Pol POt were great thinkers

      January 13, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • sam

      This is America, we can't get away with that kind of stuff here.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • fred

      Why play with socialism under Obama, socialism never worked. We need a debat between Mao and Stalin to see who run against Obama

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

      I like how believers immediately bring up stalin every time atheism and politics are mentioned. But they quickly deny it when you mention that hitler was a christian. hitler was what the religion is all about. He liked murder, god likes murder. If you don't believe me, there's a fairy tale you can purchase at your nearest book store called the bible.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • fred

      Mary had a
      No Mary just pointing out that it is not the church or God that is the problem but humans. We are the best example of life in need of God

      January 13, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • fred

      Why so ticked at theists or are you angry with Catholics

      January 13, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  2. bigfoot

    Vote for the Angel Moroni.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  3. Mary had a little nail that she stabbed jesus in the throat with and her hands were red with blood.

    obama believes in a fairy tale.

    All of these idiots believe in a fairy tale.

    What's the difference? If you vote for anyone that believes in god, you're just as guilty.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • sam

      You really are on the bandwagon today, aren't you.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • Mary had a little nail that she stabbed jesus in the throat with and her hands were red with blood.

      What bandwagon is that? If you haven't noticed yet, I'm not affiliated with either moronic political party since both of them are full of worthless believers.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • sam

      What I meant is that you're raging from article to article with no actual point, just a frothing at the mouth agenda to be aggressive toward/offend everyone you can. It' cute for the first ten minutes, then it's just tiresome trolling. We get it. You're mad. No one cares. Say something original. You're making us actual atheists look like hysterical lunatics. GTFO.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  4. Independent Mind

    "This just in – GOP poised to make history with non-Protestant presidential nominee." Who cares? This wouldn't even be news worthy if Republicans didn't pander so much to the religious crowd. I doubt that deep down inside most Republican politicians have a love for religion and God, but rather they externally and disingenuously wear their religion on their sleeves. It's all about getting the votes folks. Whatever it takes!

    January 13, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Magic Underwear

      The term is apostasy!

      January 13, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  5. imagine

    once we get the candidates sorted out we can then start the preparations to end obama's failed presidency early....

    January 13, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • bigfoot

      No need to hurry. You have until January, 2017.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • sam

      You're boring as hell, first of all. And to top it off, you want one of the current GOP clowns in office? Someone needs to save this country from *you*.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
  6. bigfoot

    Send in the clowns. Don't bother, they're already here.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  7. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Magic Underwear

    Romney will change National Prayer Day (which should be abolished, regardless, because it violates separation of church/state) into National Go Door-to-Door Selling Your Religion Day. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid!

    January 13, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  8. 5thApe

    Delusion = Delusion no matter what flavor it is. They all think they have an imaginary friend that listens to them.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • Steve S

      At least with Ron Paul, you know that it doesn't make a bit of difference what his religion is. He may be whacky in other ways, but he's got that going for him.

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

      lol u mad?

      January 13, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • 5thApe

      Not mad – more like sad. When will our species grow up.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  9. AJ

    I would like to see the first non-christian nominee.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • dreamer96

      Many only pretend to be religious, to get the religious voter's vote....

      January 13, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  10. dreamer96

    You mean U.S. could elect first non person corporation to be President....

    January 13, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  11. jp

    I just saw "When Mitt Romney Came to Town" (www.kingofbain.com). Even Chris Wallace of FAUX news is in it calling out Romney for how dispecable he and BAIN capital are.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  12. DC

    Did the previous, Protestant, presidents preach or proselytize from the podium?

    January 13, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  13. not buying it.

    they may say they are catholic, but they are supporting the isrealis.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Confused By Your Ignorance

      Huh? And your point is?

      January 13, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • not buying it.

      why don't they just say who they are supporting rather than hide it? watch Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers. Santorum is in there.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • not buying it.

      they come across as very dishonest. and why is newt such a thug about jewish people? they are acting in the best interest of another country over ours.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • Steve S

      The enemy of my enemy is my friend?

      January 13, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • not buying it.

      they are using catholics. taking advantage of their good nature and using them to protect another country (israel) over ours.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • bigfoot

      His point is: It's the Israelis that are the problem.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • Mary had a little nail that she stabbed jesus in the throat with and her hands were red with blood.

      Since when are catholics good-natured?

      January 13, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  14. lynn

    Before anybody punches their ballot for a Mormon, Google what their beliefs are. Back in 1960 we were worried about electing JFK, a Catholic. But electing a Mormon is a far different philosophy than Catholicism. The word "frightening" comes to mind.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Steve S

      It only appears more whacky than Christianity because we're used to the latter.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • glenn

      So they want me to vote for a guy that believes the Mormon God lives on a planet called Kolob (where is that planet?) – So they want me to vote for a guy who believes that Native Americans are genetically connected to a Lost Tribe of Israel that floated to America in an airtight submarine. So on....and so on....How about the FACT that the Book of Mormon contains ZERO connections to anything historic..NOTHING...AND a guy named ROMNEY BELIEVES THIS CRAP.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
  15. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    If Romney gets elected and we get into another war....I can just hear it now.....Romney will claim that Joseph Smith told him to strike at (our future enemy) and no Republican will bat an eye.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  16. Alina1

    Americans are soooo stupid (or lost) I have no idea what is with you guys. Romney saying that he is going .o repeal Health Care, deregulate firms that f...t up US, and make tax cuts for rich permanent. What Americans do? They want to vote for SOME MORE OF THAT.
    Flag in your hands but don't cry after.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  17. Pete

    Call me when they have a rational skeptic nominee.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Steve S

      My thoughts exactly. Wake me up when the choose an atheist.

      January 13, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
  18. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    What I wanna know is: where is Fred Phelps and his "God Hates Mormons" picket circus?

    January 13, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  19. DK

    Romney has the same morality as bush – pays lip service to christian ideals and then will sell it all down the toilet for riches and war. He's a great choice if you want a corporate puppet that will sell the nation down the toilet.

    January 13, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Steve S

      Agreed. His foreign policy is "W" II.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  20. imagine

    after the dreadful failure obama has been he does not deserve to be voted out but should face the disgrace of being removed from office....

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

      Uh oh! Someone's got too much sand in their v.ag today...

      January 13, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • Steve S

      The GOP is knotting themselves up in fantastic fashion this time around. I don't think there's much hope of beating Obama.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:05 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.