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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. MPR

    Way to write off Ron Paul, CNN. Unbiased news, that's a laugh.

    January 13, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  2. nate

    lmao none of these idiots can beat obama ty gop morons

    January 13, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  3. slans31

    Funny pic for the article. The ugliest beauty pageant I have ever seen. Who are the two girls on the left holding hands?..Anyway, Mr. Burn’s looks good in the middle.

    January 13, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • Don Pardo

      Yes, this year's Angry Old White Guy Beauty Pagent has not been as impressive as we had hoped, but you are indeed correct: Ron Paul did win a special prize for "contestant who most resembles a Simpsons character.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  4. Kyon

    For those people who can't stand liberals: Guess what even your own party is becoming more liberal, gradually everyone will become more moderate. It could even be the law of the universe itself where the clear separation of parties becomes more clouded and as political entropy increases we will all come to an understanding that will allow us to work in a more unified manner

    January 13, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  5. Mark DeMent

    Religion in America has been a big part of choosing a President.Depending on a person's belief system depends upon how much an effect it will have on their voting decisions.Evangelicals are everywhere in South Carolina which poses new questions–can they vote for a non-traditional non-Protestant candidate or are their values changed with the times? The key to the Republican who wins South Carolina depends in a large part about what the Pastor's think. Only days will tell and all will know whether they will vote or will stay home. ~DeMentGlobalNewswire

    January 13, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  6. Very Funny Stuff

    Well, I must say that I deeply appreciate the comedy the conservatives are doing this election. You could make a hilarious reality show out of it – too bad the name "The Biggest Loser" is already taken.

    The Grim Reaper has already scythed the Republicans and they don't even know it yet. Obama wins by default.

    January 13, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  7. Reasonable_Citizen

    This is a sign of progress?!?!?! The fact that instead of having another GOP candidate that belongs to one certain branch of fairy tale worship we might have one that belongs to a different branch of fairy tale worship?!?! Well let me break out the good champagne and my dancing shoes, because we are certainly living in exciting times!

    (I still can't believe this is considered news, or that discussing religion as a part of politics doesn't make everyone with even a children's level of understanding of the USA's history vomit uncontrollably.)

    January 13, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • Reasonable_Citizen

      Also, in case you couldn't tell: I'm an atheist, and I believe religion should play no part in politics. Period. Ever.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • JH

      Atheism is a religion.

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

      Atheism's not a religion, dumba.ss.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
  8. mary

    Get real! They are ALL Hyper-Religious, "Christian", Old, Rich, White Men – so there are no differences among any of them.

    January 13, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  9. smartone

    Oh please! Does anyone here really think the gop will elect a non-Protestant ? ROFLMAO!

    January 13, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  10. Ancient Curse

    I don't think we should look too hard at things like this (making history by nominating a non-Protestant). The GOP is making their selection from a very shallow pool - they're being forced to take what they can get.

    January 13, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  11. CrazyPeach

    Wait a minute!!!! If Romney and Huntsman are both Mormon, and Mormons say they are Christian than they are Protestant Christians!!!! If you are a Christian and you are NOT Catholic then you are a Protestant PERIOD!!!!

    January 13, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • TC

      Well crazy – that is not the case becasue Mormons are a cult that was developed by Joseph Smith 150 yrs ago. Religion is not Christianity but shares some aspects – closer to Arianism. Protestants used ot be Catholic and protested the Churches abuses.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Magic Underwear

      Christian Scientists are more science fiction....and Mormons kind of fall into that category too.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • TownC

      Mormons are Christians. They are not Protestants and not cultists. Check your facts at Mormon.org.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • OC

      No. Eastern Orthodox Christians are neither Catholic nor Protestant. Mormons are sometimes called Protestant, but they have little in common with most other Protestant sects, so that makes little sense.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • CrazyPeach

      I wasn't saying that Mormons are or are not Christian. Mormons say that they are Christians. Other than OC pointing out that Eastern Orthodox are not Protestant (Sorry forgot about that one), the Protestant Revolution is where all other "Christians" come from (hence the name Protestant).

      January 13, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • William

      There are also Orthodox Christians like the Russian, Greek, Romanian, Armenian, Syrian and Coptic Orthodox Christians (Note: Coptic means Egyptian). So, you have Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Gosseyn09

      Mormons believe that the priesthood authority was passed directly to Joseph Smith from Jesus Christ, just as Catholics believe that the priesthood authority was passed directly to St. Peter from Jesus Christ. That's why Mormons are not Protestants. They are like Catholics in that regard, separate from Protestants.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • Gosseyn09

      I would add to my post above that Mormons themselves are taught that they are not Protestants. It's part of their church doctrine.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • Gosseyn09

      Oops, slight correction. The Mormon legend is that Joseph Smith "received priesthood authority at the hands of John the Baptist, Peter, James, and John who received that same “power and authority” from Jesus Christ Himself (Luke 9:1). These men appeared as angels and bestowed the priesthood upon Joseph Smith."

      January 13, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • cyrus

      u racist! try to learn the teaching of latter day saints so that u will know if who truly follows the gospel of the Lord jesus Christ, then after that u can judge whatm u want!

      January 13, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  12. David Scotch

    What has religion hvae to do with being a president.
    The president is the laeader of this country no matter what is his or or religion is.
    Religion is personal and not a public spectical.

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

      I agree, it doesn't really matter what faith, but most americans want someone who has a faith.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • Joe A

      Great post! Agree 100%.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • Reasonable_Citizen

      @TC: Why? If anything faith encourages the making of decisions based on everything BUT reason and evidence. I'd prefer an atheist president over a religious one any day.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • sam

      No, 'most' Americans do NOT necessarily want someone with faith. It depends on the 'faith', and not one of these GOP clowns is suitable.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  13. sdfghj

    I know of the Three Stooges, but now there are 6. LOL

    January 13, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Magic Underwear

      Actually there were up to 5 Stooges (Larry, Moe, Curly, Shemp, and Curly Joe)

      January 13, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • just sayin

      don't forget Joe LaRosa

      January 13, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • just sayin

      oops joe besser and joe palma,

      January 13, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  14. J.M. Brouillette

    St. Ignatius of Antioch, student of the Apostle John – "Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth ] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God."

    January 13, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • TC

      Great point, that is why I don't understand whay so many protestant scholars do not recognize the real presence.

      January 13, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  15. PRS2Cube

    The "religious difference" issue is vastly overplayed. All the GOP candidates are High Priests of the Church of Mammon. They'd deny their very souls rather than blaspheme the Holy Temple of Wall Street and the Trinity of Shareholder Value, Cheap Labor, and The Invisible Hand of Capitalism (the right-wing Holy Ghost).
    Profit Without End. Amen.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  16. neverwas

    and next Non-President

    January 13, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  17. becool

    This is the begiining of the fall of the American civilzation; a mormon (strange culitsts) and a medieval faith (Catholic) will govern Uncle Sam! Trust me , this is the beginning of the fall.....

    January 13, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Magic Underwear

      JFK was a Catholic. Keith Ellison (current member of Congress) is a Muslim. Hasn't the fall already begun?

      January 13, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  18. Deep North

    Then Jesus said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." And they were amazed at him that he did not mix his religion and politics.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  19. obsthetimes

    Let's have facts, and not fiction.
    Muslims are 2.25 % of the US population NOT 0.3 %.

    January 13, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • tim

      Less than 1% of U.S. population. Maybe 2.8 Muslims, maybe less in US

      January 13, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
  20. J.M. Brouillette

    The Fathers of the Church – http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/

    January 13, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
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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.