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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. Fred

    The fact that you must be accepted and approved by Mormon clergy in order to attend a Mormon wedding in a temple flies in the face of American values. I guess the Mormon believe the rest of us are not worthy. Personally I have a serious problem with this. While non-Mormons are allowed to visit there meeting houses – the rest of us our excluded from their tabernacles. This is decisive in a society that was based upon being inclusive. Romney is the wrong candidate. Period.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • southernsugar

      Finally. A learned person. BYE FOLKS

      January 13, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • lol

      southernsugar rarely sees them thar learn-ed folks down south, so she done have a problem figgerin' out who they are. She just thinks anybody who agrees with her must be durn smart-like.

      January 13, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  2. David

    Um, technically Mormonism is Protestant, by definition. Protestant religions are those Christian religions that broke away from the Romain Catholic Church, and subesquently broke away from each other. True, John Smith broke away from the other Protestants much later, but none the less...

    But it's all irrelevant, so long as the elected President does not take orders from his church leaders. I don't recall one that ever has.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • David

      Sorry – Joseph Smith, not John Smith, of course.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • southernsugar

      David...........a person gets grace by WORKS ON EARTH. lEARN YOUR FAITH.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • southernsugar

      The Holy Catholic Church regards the mormon church as a cult. Learned that as an itty bitty kid.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • southernsugar

      Heretics

      January 13, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • NetPlay525

      You don't remember George W. Bu$h, Inc.? Short memory.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • v_mag

      So, every church that's not Catholic is Protestant? Greek Orthodox, too? Unitarian? Scientology? People's Temple? I think there's a satanic "church" out there somewhere. Are they Protestants, too?

      January 13, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  3. itellyouwhat

    Some Christians view Mormons as being part of a cult; since Mormons baptize the dead which demonstrates they believe that GRACE is not a choice..wikipedia/wiki/Baptism_for_the_dead However if a Christian says they are saved by Grace and not by works, then they are subconsciously agreeing with the Mormons that Grace is not a choice 1 Corinthians 15:29 . The point here is that God does not require us to be good, He does require us to Love all that is good.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • David in FL

      Baptism of the Dead does not mean that the Dead wil accept it in the Spirit World.. it just means they get the opportunity. This is not a Grace argument, this is Mercy in practice. And it has its foundations in the New Testament as well as modern revelation.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • southernsugar

      You can't baptize anything that's dead. Baptism give eternal life to the soul, by absolving the soul of original sin.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • sam

      southernsugar, that's not true. You're a heretic. You're going to hell.

      January 13, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  4. jerome

    Hey!!! OBAMA is a MUSLIM!!!!

    January 13, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • .

      jerome is an idiot

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

      President Obama is a Christian. To say otherwise is ignorant.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • v_mag

      Don't you find it difficult to say Obama is a Muslim at the same time you criticize him for belonging to a Christian church that's not right wing? I mean, which is it? Muslim or leftie Christian? You can't have it both ways.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • sam

      Hey!!! You're a BORING TROLL!!!

      January 13, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  5. Johnson

    Romney is not Christian. Ask him to prioritize between: God; Prohpet who leads his church and talks to God and is the supreme word on earth; country; family and Truth.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Right, Mormons are:

      *** Christianity! Now with even more silliness! ***

      January 13, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • southernsugar

      Mormon-ism is a cult. IMHO

      January 13, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  6. patNY

    Where's Romney's long form birth certificate? Since he's Mormon, isn't it really true he was born on another planet and therefore is ineligible to run for US PRes?

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

      No. He was born here; however when he passes he will go to another planet and become a God because he stuck to the rules of his faith.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • David in FL

      patNY, can you come back to earth please.. being rediculous is beneath you

      January 13, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  7. Jason

    Ron Paul can win!

    January 13, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  8. How is this NEWS?

    How many wife’s will Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman bring to Washington if elected? Will the South Lawn of the White House turn into a Doublewide trailer park to accommodate the 20 or 30 First Ladies? And then there’s the cost of Secret Service protection for 20-30 FLOTUS, and an additional 20-30 Air Force 767’s for their use.

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

      come on – you sound like the people who post on Fox News –

      January 13, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • David in FL

      Biggot. And I suppose Abraham, Issac and Jacob would probably take offense to your comment as well.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  9. Gopherit

    It would be appropriate if "religion" were left out of the political scene altogether. It has become a political football, and if government somehow becomes intertwined with "religion" the results and consequences for both will be very negative.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  10. palintwit is teaming up with rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy one

    I'm for anybody that will see to it that we all get more of the baby jesus in our daily lives. And more nascar, too. We need more nascar. And more Bristol Palin on DWTS. Lots more Bristol and lots more jesus !!! All you presidential hopefulls... are you listening ??

    January 13, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  11. joesixpackjr

    Why is CNN so fixated on Romney's religion? CNN has always tried to ignore Obama's religion. Methinks CNN just wants to remind the voters that Romney is Mormon and try to stir up some anti-Mormon feelings.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • David in FL

      Totally agree.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Rich

      Agreed.

      January 13, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Jacob H

      Um, maybe because he's a christian. After the who birther BS everyone knows that Obama is Christian. Romney is the first non protestant to even run as a republican. They love their Christian Evangelism

      January 13, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  12. lewtwo

    A presidents's first alegance must be to the country.
    Any person puts their religion ahead of the country is not a suitable candidate for the office.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  13. Nick-o

    There goes the Gay Old Protestant (GOP) Party.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  14. ugh

    Ugh, religion is so stupid.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  15. DreWhite

    Ron Paul is closing the gap in South Carolina!! Latest polls is Romney the corporate puppet at 29%...Gingrich next to his home state of Georgia at 25%, and Ron Paul at 20%. Yet, the mainstream media repeats the same lie over and over...Ron Paul cant win!! He most certainly can win!!

    January 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  16. The Woof

    It isn't the religion so much that should be in question but the person's character. All religions have a dark past of some sort.. Mormons, a famous attack on a wagon train as well as excluding blacks from the Church until recently, and for me personally, the Bible doesn't need a supplement. Catholics, well the Spanish Inquisition comes to mind as well as the Crusadesand the news of molestation doesn't help. Protestants, well Oliver Cromwell wasn't exactly endearing as well as the Salem Witch trials. Religion has been been used and misused too often, but as earlier stated look at the individual and see how they votes on issues and don't just hear what they say but listen to what they say then cast your vote.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  17. Horky

    Emy- What you do not disclose is that Mormons believe that Jesus Christ was a Prophet, not One who died and resurrected as the Son of Man.

    January 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • David in FL

      Jesus Christ IS the Son of God, DID die for our sins and WAS resurrected. Can we please put that misinformation to rest? And yes Mormons do believe this, I am one. and to Nick-o, you would have said the same thing about Moses.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Dan

      Horky. You are COMPLETELY WRONG. Mormon is a nickname for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Mormons worship Jesus Christ as the Savior and Redeemder of the world, the only begotten Son of God, and the only being capable of performing the necessary sacrifice that enables us to be forgiven when we repent. Jesus Christ is the center of the Mormon church. Everything they believe revolves around the truth of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  18. FlatTires

    So That's what religion is about???
    "Mormons have been recruiting ..making inroads ... across the country and raising MONEY.. the Mormon Church is booming ... other denominations are struggling for CASH and converts.” Well, finally somebody says it out loud.
    I wonder what Jesus would say about that? Wasn't there this thing about 'money changers'?? Or am I thinking of republicans right now?

    January 13, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • David in FL

      No, that is NOT what religion is about. The poor and the wealthy benefit equally in the True Gospel of Jesus Christ.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  19. Frank Cardenas

    No Mormon president, please!

    January 13, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Joe A

      Why not? Romney is not a career politician.

      January 13, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
  20. Emy

    Give it up. Mormons ARE Christians. The name of their church is "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints". Christ is all they talk, preach, and testify about above the prophets (including their modern prophets from Joseph Smith until now). Next to the Bible they have "The Book of Mormon-Another Testament of Jesus Christ" hence the nickname for their religion...call them "Christian-Mormons" or Christian-LDS (which stands for Latter-day Saints) if you may, do some research, but stop doubting their belief, faith, and devotion to Christ. If some of us are "Christians" why do we despise our brothers whatever their belief or non belief may be.

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

      "why do we despise our brothers whatever their belief or non belief may be."

      hatred and intolerance is the foundation of your religion.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Nick-o

      The Mormon religion was founded by a self-obsessed sociopath who proclaims to have met God. It's fake just like Scientology. It is heresy.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • David in FL

      Nick-o you would have said the same thing about Moses.

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

      @David in FL,
      You may be correct, but does that make him wrong... in either case?

      January 13, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Moron

      Nick-O You just described all religions. Imaginary people do not exist in the sky. All religions have been dis-proven by science. Deal with it! Pychopants

      January 13, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • David in FL

      Black, my point that I thought I made was that God has a longstanding pattern of revelation, he works through Prophets. And Joseph Smith was a True Prophet and a good selfless man. I've heard these character assasination attempts hundres of times. Read about him, he was a good man and was killed for his beliefs.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Black

      @David in FL,
      Nothing personal, I'm just pointing out that mental disease may very well explain all "prophets," regardless of their flavor of doctrine.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • v_mag

      Jim Jones claimed to be a Christian, but most people would call the People's Temple a cult. It's going to be very difficult for a Mormon to answer questions about Lucifer as Jesus' brother, magic underwear, humans becoming gods, Jesus fathering a race of native Americans, and all the other weird stuff in the Book of Mormon. Sure, the Bible is also filled with very strange stuff, but it has the advantage of being familiar to most people, after a couple of thousand years. Maybe in 2 millenia a Mormon will be elected president, but it's been under 200 years that Mormons have been around.

      January 13, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • Joe A

      @V_mag. Can you please answer the following: Who is satan and where did he come from? What will you be doing after this life? What is the meaning of Exoduse 28:2.

      January 13, 2012 at 9:05 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.