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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. kene

    Hey....What was Nixon....Quaker right?

    January 13, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Thosun

      The Society of Friends "Quakers" are Protestants.

      January 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • g.c.kells

      Nixon and Hoover were Quakers, and Republicans, and NO we aren't protestant. The Protestant and Quaker traditions are very different.

      January 14, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  2. TJeff1776

    Dear TEST:
    Salvation doesn't require a lot of things......especially someone pointing the accusing finger at other people's church religion. Stop being SO ridiculous OR approaching the level of stupidity.

    January 13, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • test

      You're silly.

      January 13, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  3. DamnLiberal

    How is it we're defining Mormons as non-protestant? That's equivalent to labeling them non-christian. They are a Christian faith separate from the Pope and Catholic Church. That is by definition Protestant. It's not like they're nominating some Buddhist, Muslim or Scientologist.

    January 13, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • test

      Mormons reject sola fide (salvation by faith alone) which is a key component to Protestantism.

      January 13, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • bee13

      The main difference is that the Mormon Church launched from a completely different origin than Protestant faiths. Look up: "Restorationist religon" and it will better explain.

      January 13, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Geraard Spergen

      Exactly! Christian, non-Catholic = Protestant. Possible exceptions for Greek and Russian orthodox.

      Mormons are protestants... stupid headline.

      January 13, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Wardstien

      Um, until recently people wouldn't even admit they are Christian. If you want to get technical, they are what Christians are to the Jewish faith, something that started as a blasphemous cult that due to their teachings grew into another religion. They have a whole separate book of worship outside the typical King James' Bible. Pick one up some time and read it. You can call the Church of Mormon and get one for free. Very eye opening read.

      January 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • bee13

      Catholic and Protestant leaders alike have stated that Mormonism doesn't fit into the definition of either faith-base. It's because Mormonism claims to be the RESTORATION of the true church of Christ whose authority was removed from the earth when the last original apostle died.

      Mormonism doesn't spring from Catholicism or Protestantism.

      January 13, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • JH

      bee 13. If Mormons aren't protestants, than that means their claims of a restoration are in fact true. Otherwise, they are in fact protestants (despite claims to the contrary from any party)... ultimately tracing their roots back to various spinoffs coming ultimately from the Catholic true.... Catholics and Protestants are not being intellectually honest if they state that Mormons are not protestants while simultaneously denying the event of the restoration.

      January 13, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • bee13

      JH – I see your argument. I'm just relating things I've read over the years from multiple sources, both LDS and non-LDS. Neither Catholic nor Protestant nor Mormons for that matter, see the Mormon faith, by definition, as fitting into their programs.

      January 13, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  4. lroy

    The correct way to baptize is In the Name of the Father Son AND Holy Spirit. Mormons does not use the proper formula for a valid baptism as defined by mainstream Christianity and therefore is not Christian. Sorry. I think the religion issue is relevant because most people conduct their lives by their religious beliefs (or should anyway), and that should include the choices they make in making political decisions. That's why THIS Catholic votes for politicians who are pro-life.

    January 13, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • JH

      Iroy,

      I'm sorry but you are mistaken.

      The Latter-day Saint baptisimal prayer, "Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen."

      January 13, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • BobinCA

      Your information is incorrect. The prayer said as one is being baptized goes as follows- Call the person by their name and then states, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen."

      January 13, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Get Your Facts Straight

      Every baptism in the LDS Church is done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Go to any one of them and you will see. Please get your facts straight before you post a comment. Mormon.org

      January 13, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • CheckFacts

      For your information, Mormons baptize "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, AND of the Holy Ghost". The term "holy Ghost" in Mormonism is the same as the "holy spirit" in other mainstream Christianity groups.

      Check your facts.

      Therefore, by your argument, we ARE CHRISTIAN! Just like we have been trying to tell you for decades. Don't tell ME what I don't believe, especially if you know nothing about us. I believe in Jesus Christ and that he is my savior. Need I say more?

      January 13, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  5. test

    Dear Mormons,

    Salvation does not require whatsoever John Smiths Golden Tablets.

    Sincerely,
    Human commentator

    January 13, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • BobinCA

      Dear Test,

      Do you mean Joseph Smith?

      January 13, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • test

      Yes, Joseph Smith. Thank you for correcting me. My mistake 🙂

      January 13, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  6. Michael Kim

    John 14 Trust in God and also trust in Me 'Jesus'
    Jobs, economy, deficit, debts, and foreign policy and marriage is only between man and woman is the issue.

    January 13, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Stu in Iowa

      Yes, I'm sure that in the general SSM is going to be a huge topic. Rolls eyes....

      January 13, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  7. iankearl

    I don't think an individuals religious preference should have anything to do with how many votes they receive. It should be based on the policies they want to implement and not what they religiously believe in. Furthermore, I think a candidate should fund their own campaign instead of taking handouts from corporate backers. That would eliminate a lot of corruption. Wishful thinking but it makes sense.

    January 13, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  8. Baby Blues

    To Jerome: Where have you been the past several years. Obama IS NOT MUSLIM. What does it take for you people out there to realize that? Would it take surgery to straighten out your brain? Just like his birth certificate - look how long that went on and there are people still out there who don't believe he is a U.S. citizen. Good grief!!!!! It is actually hard to believe.

    January 13, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • truth will out

      It is a little presumptuous to say that Mitt Romney has the nomination only after two states have voted.

      January 13, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  9. bee13

    Another CNN article that barely recognizes Ron Paul's #2 front-runner standing. You CNN guys crack me up!

    January 13, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • sam

      That's because he's a cranky old crackpot and a non-story.

      January 13, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • bee13

      Sam – I wouldn't quite put Paul to bed just yet. An amazing number of younger Americans is thoroughly energized by him and my guess is their numbers will continue to grow and grow. Older voters are starting to pay attention to him, as well.

      The RNC may ultimately be backed into a corner by a huge outpouring of support for Paul. I mean, if Paul somehow managed to continue picking up steam all the way to the convention with front-runner wins how will the RNC simply blow him off?

      January 13, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • sam

      Sure, he's definitely got some popular vote because of the angle he's approaching some things and the no-nonsense way he does it, but I just don't think he can't get any further being so cranky.

      January 13, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  10. Toolboy

    Isn't any non-Catholic Christian technically a Protestant?

    January 13, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • bee13

      If by 'Protestant' you include Mormon, then No. Mormonism is a restorationist belief and is not normally associated or grouped with the commonly recognized protestant faiths.

      January 13, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • lroy

      No, because then you would be calling Muslims and Hindus protestant. Think of the root word "Protest". It goes back to Henry VIII and the Reformation.

      January 13, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Black

      Non-Catholic Christians would also include, Eastern Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Mormon, Coptic?, etc.

      January 13, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Leviathan

      No. Any of the Orthodox Christian faiths would not be considered Protestent. The Protestent/Catholic dichotomy only holds in Western European countries that were exclusively Catholic at one time.

      January 13, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  11. J.W

    I do not think that Mormons are protestant. I do not think you can lump protestants together like that. Non-Catholic churches have a wide variety of doctrines ranging from very conservative to very liberal. They would all be classified as Christian, but you cannot really break them down into one sub-class just like that.

    January 13, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  12. Gustavo

    Atheists-The least violent, most tolerant, most intelligent, most progressive, most hated and mistrusted minority in the United States.

    January 13, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Charles

      Most tolerant: LOL

      January 13, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Black

      Didn't you forget 'most humble'?

      January 13, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • sam

      What about 'hung like horses'?

      January 13, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  13. MedullaPancreas

    Ron Paul in second place is a long shot? Where do they find these glorified bloggers from?

    January 13, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  14. us1776

    Oh, it's GOP history all right.

    Putting on the biggest GOP Clown Show ever.

    .

    January 13, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  15. Bill

    CNN just keeps thrashing around grasping at straws. Anything to promote Obama-Anything.

    January 13, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  16. Clifford S

    I guess if the Democrats can have a Muslim president we can have a Morman one

    January 13, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • pastafaria

      I guess if you're stupid enough not to know how to spell the word "Mormon" correctly it follows that you're also stupid enough to believe Obama is a Muslim.

      January 13, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Black

      @pastafaria,

      RAmen!

      January 13, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • lroy

      Pasta Bowl-I'm sure it was a typo. Give Cliff a break, Moron.

      January 13, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • sam

      Um...the idiot just called Obama a muslim. Why are we giving him a break, exactly?

      January 13, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  17. Sean Russell

    "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."

    Of course, back then, republicans couldn't stop screaming about "separation of church and state". Now, they say it doesn't exist.

    January 13, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Snow

      Typical politics.. flip a side in a blink of an eye and portray themselves as always being true, even though every one knows they aren't. I wish the next president would not be a politician.. 🙂

      January 13, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  18. Thinking7

    Romney is scaring me. CNN – please stop shoving him in our faces. Try Ron Paul.

    January 13, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • westward

      You aren't the only one.

      January 13, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  19. Atlantan

    They can't get a good minority candidate, so they have to settle with a different type of Christian. Nice.

    January 13, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  20. David, CA

    This is the only thing that is notable about the GOP? A non-protestant nominee? Well I suppose they wouldn't be making history for turning the country around, coming up with workable ideas and solutions. They HAVE made history on sending this country into the ground like a yard dart (thanks GWB!!!) and then doing NOTHING to help. They're too obsessed with gay marriage and screaming NO like 5 yo children.

    They'll make history this november in the WORST trouncing by President Obama.

    January 13, 2012 at 3:27 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.