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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. haseeb

    Anyone picked in the name of religion is a disgrace to the freedom of this country. While we continue to preach the rest of the world for separation of church and state, we the so called champion of freedom insist on the religion of the presidential candidate. It is very disgraceful and shameful!. Anyone asking for my vote based on what religion he/she believes, gets my middle finger. Be courageous as to what you are, and disclose what plans to you have to bail the country out this recession.

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

    You know what....I don't care what religion or color you are Mr President just get this counrty back to good.,,,PLEASE!

    January 13, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Magic Underwear

      Actually the president doesn't have all that much power....it really depends on the balance of power in Congress.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Marks from Middle River

      The problem will always be whose idea or definition of "good" are thinking about?

      January 13, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  3. Fred W.

    I regard religion as a collective mental illness and in that sense it would be like saying they chose the first mentally ill candidate who is not Schizophrenic.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • Marks from Middle River

      Then how are you that much different then any other person of hate. Remove the word religion and you can drop in race, culture, gender etc...

      Take a step back and check your statement. We have some folks on our side that say and have said the same about Gays and Lesbians. Where does that leave your statement if all you did was switch out te group to the one you do not like?

      January 13, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • sam

      Baww, Mark. Here we go again with the poor picked on christian schtick.

      January 13, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • Marks from Middle River

      It is not a poor Christian thing for me. The same is when folks say the same about any group and begin the process of dehumanization. Which is why I gave the example of the hatred that some on my side have for Gays and lesbians.

      January 13, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  4. APS

    Article failed to mention the first non-Protestant ever nominated was Alfred E. Smith, a Catholic, by the Democrats back in 1928. He ran against Herbert Hoover whose platform were the three P's: Prohibition, Prosperity, and Protestantism.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  5. Reason & Logic

    "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."

    I can tell you that the Catholic Church lost more members than the GOP gained Catholic supporters because of the Church's stance on abortion and its support of the rhythm method as the only acceptable form of birth control.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • TR6

      @Reason & Logic:” and its support of the rhythm method as the only acceptable form of birth control.”

      Yes, having been dragged kicking and screaming away from the dark ages, the catholic church now acknowledges mathematics as means of birth control; but, still condemns physics and chemistry

      January 13, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
  6. Patricksday

    Right Winged Catholics never question the church, they obey regardless. Which is why Children were betrayed intrusted in the care of these "Holy Men". These two dont have Matthew in their Bibles either, it must be removed if your Republicans.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  7. Bill

    If Catholics turned to the Republicans because the Vatican opposed abortion, then it is legitimate to ask a Catholic candidate whether he'd defer to the Pope's authority. It's legitimate to ask, just not politically correct. Too many feathers would get ruffled.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  8. louise

    So What?

    January 13, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • Don'tCare

      Agreed. Who gives a flying blue F***?

      January 13, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  9. steve

    forget about the religion factor...if Romney is elected we'll have the first MEXICAN PRESIDENT!!!!! DO I SMELL RICE AND BEANS IN THE WHITE HOUSE?????! WHAT'S NEXT CHINESE FOOD!?

    January 13, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Magic Underwear

      Romney is about as Mexican as I am Martian.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • Bll

      Seems appropriate since we currently have a Islamic socialist in office.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Magic Underwear

      Bil...O'Reilly? is that you?

      January 13, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • HarryHoudini

      What's next? How about white sheets and a hood?

      January 13, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • Mr Martian

      Grrtp zoop bltpleep grock zeeeep!!!

      January 13, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  10. AC

    Stop counting Ron Paul out, he has a better chance than Jon Huntsman or Rick Santorum. Stop the media bias.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Magic Underwear

      Isn't Ron Paul sort of an independent or libertarian anyway? That's why they ignore him, because they are told to do so by the DC Machine.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • Jesse

      I know! This statement is ridiculous and also FALSE: "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."

      January 13, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • Marks from Middle River

      AC. Or its just CNN being CNN. If they can paint the entire GOP field as being non protestant then they are hoping to swing that Protestant vote to the Dems due to Obama being Protestant.

      Maybe it might work and there are such Protestants that would vote Dem just because Obama is a Protestant.

      ....then again how many of my fellow African Americans voted for Obama because he was African American.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • Jim

      The Republican Party rank and file will not support the legalization of drugs or the extreme downsizing of the military, period. Ron Paul does not have a chance.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  11. SPQR

    God bless The United States of America.

    President Obama 2012 !!!

    If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks…will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered…. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs. – Thomas Jefferson in the debate over the Re-charter of the Bank Bill (1809)

    January 13, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
  12. GODZILLA1

    No matter who the GOP nominee is about 60 percent of the Republican voters will stay home.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • Tim

      Are you kidding me???? More people will go out to vote in November than any other election in history. All those independents that voted for Obama because they didn't want another Bush, will vote for Paul because they don't want another idiot!

      January 13, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • Reason & Logic

      You mean registered voters, right, not just voters because how can a voter vote if they stayed home unless they submitted an absentee ballot?

      January 13, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • TR6

      @Tim:” All those independents that voted for Obama because they didn't want another Bush, will vote for Paul because they don't want another idiot”

      I don’t think so. Given the choice between an idiot moderate and a radical reformer, I think most people would pick the idiot. Much less likely to do irrecoverable damage.

      January 13, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
  13. LittleLordHoseaComethUntoU2Say

    "if they only had a brain" – minus Paul of course

    January 13, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  14. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Magic Underwear

    I especially like how in all major religions (particularly those that are adapted from Judaism...and including Judaism) there are always accounts of INDIVIDUALS off by themselves, whether in the mountains or in a cave, but they are ALONE.....and that's when they have their epiphany...when they claim to have "talked to god" or when they claim to have found Golden Tablets...blah blah blah. These kinds of uncorroborated mythical stories are at the heart of all these phony religions, and of course there was no technology around when they were made up in order to provide video recordings of such events. They would have made such excellent YouTube hits! And yet, here we are thousands of years later and mindless lemmings still believe in this CRAP! Why? Because it was ...ooooohhhh.....written down? Oh that's magical and authoritative for sure. That proves it all right! How many more thousands of years will the human race have to put up with this mind rot?! What's it gonna take to wake you idiots up? No "savior" is coming back.....and there is nothing to be "saved" from! Get over it!

    January 13, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Faith-Isn't-A-Preacher

      Isn't a claim of non-belief in a Deity a form of religion?
      It does organize to promote its own cause and mischief.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Magic Underwear

      "Isn't a claim of non-belief in a Deity a form of religion?"

      No, because religion means you believe in fairy tales.

      Atheism/agnosticism/non-belief means "Fairy tales are only stories."

      January 13, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • Reason & Logic

      The events actually happened our prophets just mistook extraterrestrials for gods.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • joe

      So let me hear your explanation obout how the planet earth and humans came to be. And explain to me what is our purpose in life?

      January 13, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • Reason & Logic

      I'm not 100% sure I know the answer and neither do any of you. When you say religion is a fairy tale your belief that there is no god is a fairy tale as well. We'll all find out what is fact and what is fiction the day we die.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Magic Underwear

      Just relax and let it ride, man. Why does there have to be a "purpose"? You can't just say there was some "god" that always existed. How was this alleged "god" created then?

      January 13, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • Reason & Logic

      My firm belief (and realize that no one knows what is fact and what is fiction) is that there is a supreme being and that we are spiritual beings living in a material vessel and that when we die our spirits move on to a higher place. However, I do believe that all organized religions have it all wrong. The gods and events that took place in all religions were of and orchestrated by extraterrestrial origins.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • Joe A

      Come on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Magic Underwear I am still waiting for your explanation on how this all came about.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • TR6

      The reason they all have their epiphany in private and (do to god working in mysterious ways) have no tangible evidence is the same as all of the other charlatans, con artists, UFO buffs, fortune tellers, mediums, ghost hunters, iluminaudi experts and the people that warn you to wear tin foil hats to protect you from the CIA’s mind control waves . They all sing the same song… you must believe before you can see that their “evidence” is true.

      January 13, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
  15. dreamer96

    Mitt Romney believes he is going straight to the third level of Mormon Heaven, where he will become a God himself and get his own world to rule over... WoW....any good video game will give you that....

    January 13, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  16. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things
    Even Mormons can turn from their sin and find the true Jesus
    Waiting to receive them
    Renounce Joseph Smith and
    Accept the Lord Jesus Christ today

    January 13, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • lynn

      Go to the back pew and pray for a brain, leave the rest of us with intelligence alone.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • Watnen

      What year is this???

      January 13, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Magic Underwear

      Bearing witness from behind the anonymity of your keyboard will earn you no cool points in heaven.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • Joe A

      Why do you detest a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints leading this country. Tell me what you are going to be doing after this life. Playing a harp? I mean really is that going to prevent Mitt Romney from being a great leader. He is a man that has great faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Also explain to me how Adam and Eve's first sin was in this realm.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things
      Pray without ceasing in 2012

      January 13, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • TR6

      “Renounce Joseph Smith and Accept the Lord Jesus Christ today”

      Renounce the invisible pink unicorn and accept the flying spaghetti monster today.

      January 13, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
  17. md

    Let's hope they pick a non-president too.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • JJ

      I had the same reaction.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Not ANOTHER Bush!

      January 13, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
  18. Buickman

    why do you people always have to claim Ron Paul won't win. I see it quite different. he has the momentum, the followers, and supporters to go the distance. he gets stronger by the day.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • JJ

      Yes. Ross Perot 'had the momentum' as well. Very briefly.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • lynn

      Because he's too old for the toughest job in the entire world. He already shows signs of senility, cranky if someone pins him down on a subject or too many people in the restaurant get's him flustered. When McCain was running, the worry was Palin would be the 2nd in command if McCain checked out. You need to have the same worry about Ron Paul, even more so.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  19. Bob

    It's not progress until they nominate an atheist. Different flavors of Christianity mean less than individual denominations think they do.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • just sayin

      Where would you find an atheist with the brains God gave a gopher, let alone one bright enough to lead the greatest nation in the world.

      January 13, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • Watnen

      The human race will never progress as long as people keep believing in their "Ghosts"

      January 13, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  20. JOE B

    I don't mind someone being a mormon but detest the idea of having a mormon lead this nation. The fundamental position of mormons is that they believe they become gods. As you well know, Adam and Eve, first's sin was in this realm. This is a very big sin and I believe will result in many more problems. Christians you need to stand up for your faith.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • avdin

      you make a very good point

      January 13, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • Joe A

      Why do you detest a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints leading this country. Tell me what you are going to be doing after this life. Playing a harp? I mean really is that going to prevent Mitt Romney from being a great leader. He is a man that has great faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Also explain to me how Adam and Eve's first sin was in this realm.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:10 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.