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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. Tim

    Time for an atheist President.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  2. Robert

    I'M Sorry..... Since when did becoming a Mormon mean that your not a Protestant?! That tells you the amount of Ignorance in American Politics. If you arent a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox christian then you are a protestant. This is truly whats wrong with the conservative movement. Ignorance, Arrogance, Fear & Hate.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Patrick

      In other words.. religion.

      January 13, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • John

      Your comment is ironic. Mormons are not Protestant. I should know, I am Mormon. Protestants are those who broke off the Catholic Church (and their religion descendants). The LDS Church is a restoration of Christ's Church, not a reformation of the Catholic Church. CNN is in fact correct.

      January 13, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Tim

      If you're a Mormon, you're a Protestant? I don't think so. Mormonism claimed – via Joseph Smith – that ALL religions prior to that were an abomination. In fact, according to Mormons, if you're not a Mormon, you are a gentile. Even if you're a Jew! Don't lie about it. I used to live in Salt Lake City. The papers there wrote, on several occasions, "both Mormons and gentiles . . ."

      January 13, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • JL Fuller

      Tim's comment is not correct. The term is all of the creeds are an abomination in God's eyes. The theology behind that suggests God is unhappy with the divisons that creedalism bring about. Formalised creeds seperate God's children and foster resentlment and confrontation rather than bring people together.

      January 13, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  3. petemg

    What is the difference? We already have a non white/Muslim. And who are we to criticize. We need stability.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • pazke

      Barack Obama is not a Muslim, you idiot. I wouldn't care if he was, but stop perpetuating lies.

      January 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • HellBent

      If Rush Limbaugh or Fox News said it, then it must be true, right?

      January 13, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  4. Steve

    This is atrocious. The fact that someone from a different religion potentially getting the GOP endorsement makes news? What ever happened to religious freedom and the fact that religion should not be mixed with politics?

    January 13, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  5. Hot Poppa

    Sorry to break it to you, but Mormons are Protestants (even if they say otherwise). They are just another branch of the tree planted by Martin Luther. No news here.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Stopthemadness

      Wow I am so glad you aren't in political office. I am also hopeful you have no children. I don't think the world needs another one like you. Try doing some research about what you spout off before you totally fabricate something like you just have.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Joe Rioux

      If you think a cult counts as "Protestant" then yes, you are right.

      I'm not aware of any other supposed Protestant branch that believes in magic underwear that helps them survive car wrecks, fires, and natural disasters [1].

      1. Stuever, Hank (February 26, 2002), "Unmentionable No Longer: What Do Mormons Wear? A Polite Smile, if Asked About 'the Garment'", Washington Post: C1, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/26/AR2007122600781_pf.html .

      January 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • John

      Hot Poppa: "Sorry to break it to you, but Mormons are Protestants (even if they say otherwise). They are just another branch of the tree planted by Martin Luther. No news here."

      No, Mormons are not Protestant. The LDS Church is not a branch of the tree that Martin Luther planted, the LDS Church is a replanting of the tree that Jesus Christ created. The LDS Church is a Restoration religion, not a Reformation religion.

      January 13, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • JL Fuller

      Joe's comment is wrong. The "magic underwear" meme is meaningless. The garment is called the Garment of the Holy Priesthood and is akin to the Catholic priests vestments. They signify authority in a theological sense and remind the wearer of his/her vows made to God in the temple. These garments are not secret but sacred. That means wearers do not hold them up for ridicule such as Joe has done.

      January 13, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  6. Inigo Montoya

    The authors are overlooking Alf Landon who ran in 1936 and was Catholic.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  7. Sproles

    Mass media is really, really funny.

    Ron Paul keeps gaining support by the minute and you bet we are here to win it. His message will spread and then, prepare your angus America.

    We will be the prosperous nation we once were. It just takes time and the right person running our country.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • TV

      Why do we need to "prepare our anus" if Ron Paul get elected? Does he plan to ream us, like Obama has?

      January 13, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • chrisaen

      ALL MEDIA IS MASS MEDIA...Even though you would like to think "Fox News" is not..Sorry meant to say Faux News.

      January 13, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Patrick

      @ Sproles
      The Ron Paul voters are as sad as the former Bachmann voters… keep dreaming.

      January 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  8. J

    I fail to understand why this has any impact on someone's ability to serve as president. The bible is a just story. Fictional Characters.

    Which Christian denomination they fall into matters just about as much as whether they're Team Jacob or Team Edward.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  9. SM

    Just one more instance of the Republican party leaving me, not me leaving the party.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  10. Roman Darien

    YOU SAID IT YOURSELF WHEN YOU SAID THAT "MORMONISM" IS GROWING AND EVANGELISM IS STRUGGLING FOR MEMBERS. THAT'S THE PROBLEM WITH EVANGELICALS! THE'RE WORRIED THEY'LL LOSE THEIR COLLECTION PLATES!

    January 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  11. palintwit is teaming up with rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy one

    Whenever I think of Alaska, I think of Sarah Palin. Whenever I think of Sarah Palin, I think of teabaggers. Whenever I think of teabaggers, I think of nascar. Whenever I think of nascar, I think of trailer trash. Whenever I think of trailer trash, I think of Sarah Palin. Whenever I think of Sarah Palin, I think of teabaggers. Whenever I think of....

    January 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • chrisaen

      It is not what you are saying that is offensive, it is how you are saying it. When you structure your differences of opinion in such a vulgar manner, you give power and credence to the other side. I do not like Republicans, or Sarah Palin, but do not set out to undermine them in the same way Republicans are always trying to put down Liberals. If you hate them in the same way that you condemn them for being, it makes you no better than the Stereotypes you portrayed in your comment, so grow up, and use a logical argument, instead of the very hate Democrats decry, and the Tea Party embraces.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Patrick

      @palintwit
      Seen it before, but still funny.

      @chrisaen
      You’re just a blowhard.

      January 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • palintwit is teaming up with rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy one

      @Patrick... Thank you for your support.

      January 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  12. Steven

    Is CNN serious? The Ron Paul bias will just not end... 3rd in Iowa, 2nd in New Hampshire, polling 3rd in South Carolina right now but on the rise and CNN groups him with Rick Perry as a "long shot" What a joke. Ron Paul will destroy republican opponents in the West and that is a fact. The MSM is just trying to steer the sheep their direction.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Chuckles

      Ron Paul is a joke, that's why. He's the only "true" republican out there but he's really an old kooky libertarian who has about as good of a chance at securing the repub nom as stephen colbert. It's not media bias to count out a guy who didn't have a shot in the first place.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  13. Ralph in Orange Park, FL

    With the exception of Rick Santorum, who appears to be advocating a Christian version of Sharia, most of the Republican candidates are letting religion take a back seat to economics.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Patrick in Jacksonville, FL.

      Just like Bachmann, Cain and Perry where ..right? yea…

      January 13, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  14. Emperor Norton

    I'm really looking forward to a point when religion plays absolutely zero role in the Presidential race. Hopefully we'll get there soon.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • chris

      Did you read the article? Maybe in a hundred years, but I doubt it.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Patrick

      We’ve actually been there before.. granted the founding fathers were still ALIVE… but hey what did they know.

      January 13, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  15. Mormons Masons whatever

    when one does as God does one becomes as God is

    January 13, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  16. LWZRGHT

    This election is currently about the economy, not about social issues. That's why religion doesn't seem to play an important role.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  17. shieldofgrace

    I believe in Jesus and proud of HIM. I am a Democrat that will not vote for President Obama, his job performance has been bad. But in good conscience, if Mitt Romney gets the GOP nom., I cannot vote for him. Mormons are not Christians. They are in the same category as scientologist. Joseph Smith & L Ron Hubbard we're card carrying fruit-loops. For those who would say that Obama was not a Christian but a Muslim. at least Islam branched off of Abraham in the O.T. thousands of years ago. Mormons popped out of Joseph Smith's head 181 years ago & he believed in polygamy. Every 4 years, the presidential candidates get worse & worse. If Romney wins the GOP nom. I'll be forced to vote for Stephen Colbert. ugh.

    January 13, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • Chuckles

      Something tells me you don't know how politics, the political process OR religion works. Do you need help?

      January 13, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • LWZRGHT

      Or you could choose the nominee from Americans Elect. Check out their website.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Sid

      shieldofgrace, re "we're card carrying fruit-loops", you sure are speaking for yourself. Wow, that was quite the nonsensical rambler of a post that you just made. Religion is for insane and stupid folk like you.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Brian

      Of course Mormons are Christian. The church is named the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jesus is central to their beliefs and practice. What definition of "Christian" are you using that would exclude Mormons but include the thousands of protestant faiths?

      January 13, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Kurt Kammeyer

      shieldofgrace, I suggest you go to mormon.org or lds.org to get your facts straight. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints most assuredly DOES believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior.
      "And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins." 2 Nephi 25:26

      January 13, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • chris

      I am a Tea Party-leaning Republican and I will not vote for Romney. I can't really vote for Obama either. Oh well, maybe there will be a Libertarian on the ticket.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • mary

      Wow. You must be perfect to pass so much judgement on others you don't know, shame we have ignorant people like you who are allowed to cast their vote.

      January 13, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Patrick

      @ shieldofgrace
      You do realize to rational people YOU are in the “same category as scientologist. Joseph Smith & L Ron Hubbard we're card carrying fruit-loops”.

      January 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  18. Joseph Smith a Latter Day Saint

    If you show a picture of Joseph Smith with Mohammed both the Mormons and Muslims will have to kill you

    January 13, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Patrick

      Naw this is America, we don’t have the conviction to follow the faith to the letter. We cherry pick.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Sid

      Starting Photoshop now...

      January 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  19. Midwesterner from Iowa

    and this is important because....???????

    January 13, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  20. clr

    why does his religion matter... it's the economy that is important

    January 13, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • Patrick

      Religion shouldn’t matter but sadly it does. When candidates themselves bring their religion into it, it matters. (see Perry, Bachmann, Santorum, ect..ect.) As recent as G.W. Bush, presidents have created law and policy based on their religion.

      January 13, 2012 at 12:48 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.