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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. Alex

    "Instead, Republicans appear set to nominate a Mormon or a Catholic – unless Rick Perry or Ron Paul pull off a long-shot win."– WHAT?! Ron Paul is in second place for the nomination and only getting stronger. I hate when media portrays it as something different. This shows where CNN's sources point to. Unbelievable. RON PAUL RON PAUL RON PAUL!

    January 13, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • sam

      Nah, the only thing Ron Paul is going to be doing soon is yelling at kids to get off his lawn.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  2. Bob Hines

    In 1964 the Republican party nominated Barry Goldwater for president. He was Jewish.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • lewtwo

      AuH2O

      January 13, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Black

      Prejudices are slipping through.
      Although his name is Goldwater, Wiki lists his religion as Episcopalian.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Schaz

      Goldwater was Episcopalian. His father's parents were Jewish, but the Senator's mother was Episcopalian, and parents were married in an Episcopal church. Goldwater was raised Episcopalian and when he attended church he went to an Episcopal church.

      According to Jewish law, since his mother was not Jewish, he was not Jewish.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • FrankSpeech

      No he wasn't. Are you readiing the book of made-up history as told by Republicans? You know the one Bachmann quoted constantly – how Paul Revere warned the British, how the Founding Fathers passed the Civil Rights Act, how Ronald Reagan ascended from Heaven to save America (but they leave out the main parts of his record, like raising taxes, they don't like.
      We already have a serious, intelligent leader in the WH who works hard for ALL Americans and has done his best to clean up the Republican mess left to him – including the monster debt, two fraudulent wars, a ruined reputation with our Allies, loss of jobs at a rate of 750K a month – and he has turned MOST of it around despite constant obstruction, hate, and lies by traitor Republicans.
      If we actuall had a Congress who cared about the People they swore to serve and did not take vacations 1 week for every 2 they work (new Boehner rule when he became Speaker), actually did work and created bills that were other than ending abortion rights or killing Medicare, stopped opposing ending the fraud Bush wars that raise our debt by more than a trillion a month (and Republicans then blame Obama for the rising debt from their wars), and acted like humans we would already be well into recovery. Republicans don't want America to recover. They want us to fail for sick political games.
      They are all traitors who need to be removed from office in 2012. Voting for a Republican is voting against America and against your own best interests.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  3. JustCommenting

    I find it hillarious how some people find it offensive that the elections and religions are being discussed by the 'media' here... Hey, you!! Did you realize you are reading the Belief Blog. Stay in the homepage! Also find it interesting how the atheist are coming by the hordes to the Belief Blog.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Black

      Besides the belief of other people impacting an Atheists life, look up the page for the "About this Blog" heading:

      "...a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives."

      January 13, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • FlatTires

      Why should atheists stay away from the belief blog?
      Belief on a scale 0-10 : non believer, spiritual = 0, midlevels, doubters, moderate and strong believers in the middle, and religious fundamentalists / extremists at 10.
      Why should atheists stay away while the religious fanatics are trying to bash a reasonable secular belief system based on science and education??
      Fortunately, crack pots on either side of the extreme make it easy to shoot down their arguments, because they don't have many valid arguments. Reasonable people in the middle, believers and non-believers can politely argue their case and respect each others position without having to adopt it.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  4. Mike

    Who was Al Smith?

    January 13, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • FlatTires

      my karate instructor.. : -)

      January 13, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Amused

      He was the Dem nominee in 1928 and former NY governor. He lost to Hoover.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  5. Oscar Wilde

    So...why are these people not saying what really needs to be said...some of these Presidents were no more than DEISTS and had no religious affiliation...

    Now watch me get 75 lashes for blasphemy...

    January 13, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • luvUamerica

      Oscar, it took a lot for the Evangelicals to support this guy. So, hopefully maybe the GOP moving to the social center.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Amused

      Since 1950, the Dem presidents have been Southern Baptists (Truman, Carter, Clinton), Disciples of Christ (Johnson), Roman Catholic (JFK) and United Church of Christ (Obama). Other than JFK, each has been a member of an evangelical church. In the same period, no Republican Presidents have been members of such churches. If evangelicals are religious nuts, then the Dems are the extreme ones.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • FrankSpeech

      Sorry to mess up your lecture on religion but not all Southern Baptists are evangelicals. I was raised in a very moderate, open-minded, intellectualy based view of the Bible, Southern Baptist church.
      Fundamentalists in any religion are those with the most closed-minded, ignorant, misrepresented view of their religiion. – like the Republican evangelicals who all think their church is the most Christian, the most right, the only ones going to heaven yet ignore the real teachings of Jesus by judging others, ignoring charity and the needs of their community, not understanding when the Lord's Prayer begins with "Our" Father – the "Our" is not just white people. These nutjobs play multiple choice with the Ten Commandments, only pick and choose the scripture that fits their little cult, and the people Jesus warned us about.

      January 13, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  6. kman821

    One can only imagine the great national accomplishments that will be made when we're led by a President Romney and his magic underwear!

    January 13, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Amused

      Maybe you should ask the same about Harry Reid, who was Mormon of the Year in 2009, one year after Mitt received the same recognition.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • David in FL

      Biggotry is wrong, did you hear? Do you make fun of Orthodox Jews and their phylactaries?

      January 13, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  7. joe

    Richard Nixon was a member of the Quaker religion when he won election back in 1968. The author of this story needs to bone up on his history.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Black

      I thought Quakers broke off from the Church of England, a Protestant religion.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  8. Lee

    Let's WRAP our heads around this:

    President Mitt Romney, will be our first Commander-in-Chief that sat out a military draft on a Religious deferment.

    As to his 5 sons of military age, Romney says they serve their country "better" by working on his endless political campaigns of the past decade
    So when he attacks Iran, religious deferment Mitt will have no problem sending YOUR sons to war, because his sons have better things to do.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Amused

      Clinton avoided military service through student and other deferments. May we assume you voted for GHWB and Dole when they ran against Clinton because they are both highly decorated military veterans?

      January 13, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Lee

      Romney was seen at PRO-Vietnam war rallies while skipping out himself – It would be different if he were anti-war.

      And there's no excuse for what he said about his sons.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  9. Hey

    ...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.”

    Maybe I should run for president of Afganistan :-). I'd have a better chance there.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  10. dsptchr645

    Lived in Utah for a while, met a lot of Mormons. They are mostly really good people and have deep family values. I know they do a lot of good work in their communities and around the world. If the candidate has leadership abilities and some good plans for the country and a lot of common sense, I don't care what color he/she is, what chuch they go to or what party they represent. I want someone who knows how to be a Chief Executive.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  11. curious

    Ex republican candiate Herman Cain said "Muslims make me nervous". A statement that few of these responders challenged.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • lewtwo

      Why should they challenge it.
      As the largest organized hate group in the world they make a lot of people nervous.
      (second would probably be the Roman Catholic Church).

      January 13, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Amused

      Jesse Jackson once said "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.... After all we have been through. Just to think we can't walk down our own streets, how humiliating. "

      January 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  12. Black

    Read the ti.tle again:
    "***GOP*** poised to make history with non-Protestant presidential nominee"

    January 13, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  13. Been There

    Relax. We'll know immediately after the South Carolina primary if the US is ready for a president whose ultimate goal in life is to be a God in a polygamous heaven.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Real America

      Willful blindness on the part of the American electorate is nothing new.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Black

      @Sam,
      I suppose you are anti-Semantic, right?

      (sorry)

      January 13, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Black

      previous was mis-posted

      January 13, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  14. ac

    Time to shove the GOP off the edge of a cliff.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  15. Lester

    Mormons are Protestant. The fact someone could make a basic mistake like that shows the problems Romney will be in for if he wins, as is likely, the Republican nomination.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • White

      mormons are NOT protestant. get it straight

      January 13, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Black

      ...so they are gay protestants?

      January 13, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • White

      @black oh of course since they condemn being gay of course they all have to be gay 🙂
      maturity is sorely lacking in this country.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Bruce

      According to Wikipedia, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly referred to as Mormons) and most mainline Protestant groups do not consider Mormons to be Protestant. As a lifetime member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I do not consider myself to be Protestant, but I do consider myself to be very much Christian.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • ????

      So what is the definition of a Protestant. I thought is was a protest against the Catholic church. Therefore I thought it meant any Christian not following the Roman Catholic Pope.
      Now where does that put the Orthodox church. I don't know.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • lewtwo

      "mormons are NOT protestant. get it straight"
      Most people, including members of the protestant faiths, do not actually know what the term means.
      Most think it means Non-Catholic Christian.
      Protestant churches are actually those that were established in "PROTEST" against the Roman Catholic Church.
      Think Lutheran and The Church of England.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • ????

      From Merriam Webster:
      "a member of any of several church denominations denying the universal authority of the Pope and affirming the Reformation principles of justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and the primacy of the Bible as the only source of revealed truth; broadly: a Christian not of a Catholic or Eastern church."

      January 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Black

      @White,
      "maturity is sorely lacking in this country." True
      Sorry, the gay reference was attempted word play on "get it straight"... FAIL

      January 13, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Black

      @????,
      Note the "Bible as the ONLY source," whereas Mormons have the Bible and the Book of Mormon.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • ????

      @Black
      Yea, I saw that too. Looks like that extra book is the loophole. By Merriam Websters definition, they are not Protestants.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • sam

      Semantics...

      January 13, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Black

      @Sam,
      I suppose you are anti-Semantic, right?

      (sorry, my bad)

      January 13, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • sam

      @Black – best pun of the day. Well played.

      January 13, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  16. matt

    The reason a politician's "religion" matters (and it does even if you are an atheist voter) , is because so many religious people claim to have a direct line to god and allow that belief to inform their decision making. When we decide who we want to lead our country it is important to know what factors influence them. Unfortunately, most Americans believe this is the individuals morals and their religion when actually it is contributors, lobbyists, and interests that inform the decision making. This is simple fact, except in the case of extreamists. Both sides of the aisle have there nuts, but this year the Rights' are on full display.

    January 13, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  17. cj

    Mormons are a Protestant sect that broke off to the point that many Protestants think they went too far off course. Mormons for the most part are Protestants. Jehovah Witnesses are also for the most part Protestants.

    January 13, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • White

      the mormon religion was founded less than 200 years ago. the protestant religion is much older than that. mormonism never had anything to do with protestants in the first place.
      don't go equating the lds religion to cast-off disowned garbage.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • PS192

      @White,
      This is from mormon.org.
      "As a young man of fourteen years, Joseph already had a desire to find the truth. Like the rest of his family, he was deeply religious, and when the time came for him to be baptized, Joseph had to decide which of the many Christian denominations to join."

      Sounds like he started off as a christian protestant.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Black

      Ummm.... Didn't Luther do his protest thing in 1517, 1400+ years after the death of Jesus?

      Now if you said Mormonism was started *before* Protestantism, then they couldn't be Protestant, but not your way.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • CJ

      What Religion was John Smith before he started the Mormon Sect?

      Your guessed it..... Protestant

      January 13, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • CJ

      Sorry about that.....

      I meant to say Joseph Smith.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Black

      Joe Smith claims to have restored the Christian church not modified the one he grew up in. Anyway, the religion a founder is born into doesn't determine the heredity of the one founded. Jesus was a Jew, Martin Luther was born a Catholic, etc.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • CJ

      Matin Luther is the first major group to break off from the Catholic Church. Many groups splintered out from there. They have some differences but one major similarity is that they do not accept the Pope. The term Protestant was not initially applied to the reformers, but later was used to describe all groups protesting Roman Catholic orthodoxy.

      Since that time, the term Protestant has been used in many different senses, often as a general term merely to signify Christians who belong to neither the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Oriental Orthodoxy.

      January 13, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  18. Lee

    YouTube search "banned mormon cartoon" for an easy summary of some basic beliefs, including the origin of black people, the 3 wives of Jesus, Indians being Jews, and more!

    January 13, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • White

      "banned mormon cartoon"? who cares if anyone sees it. People tend not to pay attention to junk that's mistakenly informed and just plain ridiculous.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Lee

      I didn't use the word "ridiculous" with regard to Jesus having polygamous wives or that Indians are lost Hebrew tribes or that black people are black because they have the mark of Cain – One can see for themselves. What's to HIDE?

      January 13, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  19. lolo

    One thing I can say is true about you republicans, you love to blame other people with the foolishness that comes out of your mouths. You just keep twisting the stories. It is you who are concerned about Mitt the Mormon. You don't even want to vote for him because of his faith. You are the only ones in the news talking about the man's religion all the time. Don't get it twisted, but what more can you expect from the republicans. You even think that everyone is unamerican but your party. Get a grip on reality. All you care about is guns, abortion and religion.

    January 13, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  20. White

    Why on earth does it say "poised to make history" with non-protestant president when we already had one (Kennedy)?
    The real issue is Romney being mormon. THAT would be a first.

    January 13, 2012 at 1:53 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.