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.”

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- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Politics

soundoff (951 Responses)
  1. g.c.kells

    There have been two non-protestant Republican Presidents already Hoover and Nixon. The entire premise of this story is flawed. Quakers are NOT protestant. I was raised Quaker and can tell you without even a shred of doubt that we aren't part of the Protestant movement, never were, and our beliefs and traditions are fundamentally different. We don't consider ourselves Protestant, and Protestants don't consider us Protestant. I'm not really sure where the author got the mistaken idea that we are "connected to Protestantism". On a side note, the GOP did actually make some history recently. A GOP candidate placed second in BOTH parties primary election in New Hampshire. We all know Ron Paul took second in the GOP primary, but what hasn't been reported widely yet is that he also got enough write in votes to place second int the Democratic Party primary.

    January 15, 2012 at 2:32 am |
  2. Reality

    Protestant, Mormon, Catholic, it makes no differences. Why?

    (only for the "newbies")

    Why the Christian Right no longer matters in presidential elections:

    Once again, all the conservative votes in the country "ain't" going to help a "pro-life" presidential candidate, i.e Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Newton Leroy Gingrich, Ron Paul or Rick Santorum, in 2012 as the "Immoral Majority" rules the country and will be doing so for awhile. The "Immoral Majority" you ask?

    The fastest growing USA voting bloc: In 2008, the 70+ million "Roe vs. Wade mothers and fathers" of aborted womb-babies" whose ranks grow by two million per year i.e. 78+ million "IM" voters in 2012.

    2008 Presidential popular vote results:

    69,456,897 for pro-abortion/choice BO, 59,934,814 for "pro-life" JM.

    And all because many women fail to take the Pill once a day or men fail to use a condom even though in most cases these men have them in their pockets. (maybe they should be called the "Stupid Majority"?)

    (The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the Pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and S-TDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or condoms properly and/or use other safer birth control methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.)

    January 15, 2012 at 12:24 am |
    • .........

      when confronted with a reality post hit report abuse on it do not waste your time with it.

      January 15, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  3. Sean D.

    I wish I could find something about Ron Paul on any of these threads. : )
    By the way... Just a note to the R.P. blog pirates. It's annoying and makes people NOT want to hear about Ronnie P. You are hurting, not helping.

    January 14, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • Area 51 Visitor

      Romney shares several traits with another personality. One who "changes his mind" when necessary to reach his goal... shifts side, plays both sides. One who is great at convincing people he can restructure a business better then people can do themselves... and will axe whoever he needs to in order to do it. Yes people, if you haven't quite figured it out yet... A con man. Romney is a con man, and all you tards are bending over and taking it like the useless rejects you are. ROMNEY's a con man!!!!

      January 14, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
  4. test

    Dear Mormons,

    Salvation does not require whatsoever Joseph Smiths Golden Tablets,
    And for the record, Mormons reject Sola Fide, which is a core establishment to Protestantism. Mormonism if anything is another form of the Catholic church, more rules which pervert the bible even further.

    Human Commentator

    January 14, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • Sean D.

      Ignorance is bliss...

      January 14, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
    • SixMom

      That may be one of the most unique views I've ever read on Mormons.

      January 15, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • just sayin

      It is unique but wrong, Mormonism is no form of Christianity. Mormonism is a perversion of true Christianity and long known as a cult.

      January 15, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • Kev

      Although Protestantism is a form of Catholicism. Depending on the type of Protestantism it is either a tweeked or retweeked from Roman Catholicism. So, if the "true Christianity", if that was referrenced to being Trinitarian or Nicene Creed-based Christianity, that wasn't firmly established in Christendom until the fourth century, why would it have to be tweeked and retweeked in the Protestant Reformation if the "true Christianity" was established in Catholicism. Doesn't any tweeking and retweeking take away from the original state and therefore the original value of the "true Christianity"?

      If there was something truely messed up in Roman Catholicism, there is a good chance that it would have been messed up from the beginning. If that is the case then not only would Roman Catholicism be messed up, but also all the other Protestant sects that are either tweeked or retweeked forms of Roman Catholicism be messed up as well.

      Reforming or tweeking cannot restore something to it's original condition, it has to be actually restored, which is what the Church of Jesus Chritst of Latter-Day Saints claims to be; restored through what one could call as being God-certified or called of God modern-day prophets.

      January 15, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  5. Paul

    Momon = not Catholic. Therefore Mormon = Protestant. Don't humor the "mainstream" protestants!

    January 14, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • test

      simply not true.

      January 14, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • Puzzled

      I think it's neither here nor there, but Mormons have been maintaining that they are not Protestants.

      January 14, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • SixMom

      Protestant means a break-off of the Catholic church. Mormons don't fall under that subset.

      January 15, 2012 at 7:43 am |
  6. Earle Belle

    The Compassion Of One GOP Candidate:

    Why The Washington, DC Tea Party Founder Switched From Michele Bachmann Just Before The Iowa Caucus & Now Heartily Endorses Another:

    Why Did Bachmann's Iowa Campaign Chair Ditch Her for Another Just Before Iowa Caucus?

    Increasingly, Evangelicals are Switching to Ron Paul:

    Ron Paul Receives Major Evangelical Endorsement from Dr. James Linzey, President of Military Bible Association:

    Ron Paul Worries Some In GOP As More Primaries Loom:

    January 14, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
  7. Earle Belle

    Judge Andrew Napolitano: "What if they're lying to you about Ron Paul?"

    Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer: "NDAA is More Dangerous to Americans Than Iran!"

    "Ron Paul Is Hawkish On Defending Americans In America"

    Adam Kokesh: "Ron Paul Is The Choice of the Troops!":

    Why The Military Industrial Media Complex Fears Ron Paul:

    What Does It Mean When The GOP Establishment Fears & Declares All-0ut War On A GOP Presidential Candidate?

    January 14, 2012 at 8:22 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.