Can a Mormon Become President?

By David Paul Kuhn - June 6, 2011

‹‹Previous Page |1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | Next Page››

Grandfather Romney's monogamy was no small side note. The religion's polygamist past continues to influence the public. Gallup asked Americans in 2007 to note "what comes to mind first when they think about" Mormons; the largest share, nearly a fifth, said polygamy. The second most stated reply, from a tenth of adults, was Salt Lake City or Utah.

Mitt Romney is still forced to shoulder echoes of that history. Fox News, along with other outlets, reported in 2007 that Mitt's great-grandfather had five wives. There was a contemporary HBO series titled "Big Love" that featured a so-called "Mormon fundamentalist" with three wives (the modern LDS church excommunicates polygamists).

George Romney's Mormonism was an issue. Mormons still did not allow blacks to enter the priesthood -- a right of passage, like a bar mitzvah, for all male members of the church -- until 1978. George would not condemn his church, instead citing his strong civil rights record. He effectively demonstrated that he was his own man. It echoed John F. Kennedy's Catholic case without directly making it.

But the elder Romney ran in a different GOP. Social conservatives were a passing concern for pre-1980 Republicans. They are now the largest and most loyal bloc of the GOP. Today's Mormon problem might even exceed Kennedy's religious obstacle. Gallup found that in 1959 and 1960, between a fifth and a quarter of voters said they would not support a Catholic candidate for president, roughly similar to views on Mormons. Yet faith was not then a part of the presidential audition.

Far more people also knew a Catholic in 1960 than know a Mormon today. Mormons constitute only about 2 percent of the adult population. That matters in religion and politics. Six in 10 Americans who know a Mormon have a favorable view of them. Among Americans who do not know Mormons, slightly less than half view them favorably.

Weighing the Mormon Albatross

Mormons have always been dogged by perceptions of otherness. The modern LDS church lengthened the title of the Book of Mormon to include "Another Testament of Jesus Christ," partly to ameliorate its image. Mormons similarity with mainstream Christianity was highlighted.

About six in 10 Republicans and Democrats believe Mormonism is "very different" from their own religion. (Unless otherwise noted, independent voters who lean toward a party are identified with that party in this RCP study. The findings derive from computations of 2007 and 2009 Pew surveys -- the most substantial data sets on perceptions of Mormonism. A May Pew poll updated the data on Americans' willingness to elect Mormons.)

Romney hoped to put those problems behind him by December 2007. He followed in Kennedy's footsteps and gave The Speech: "If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest," he said. The word "faith" was mentioned nearly two dozen times. The word "Mormon" was mentioned once. Romney did not defend his unique faith. He defended those with faith. The former ghettoizes; the latter united Romney with social conservatives. It was a smart tactic. But nothing changed.

More than a week after the speech, about a fifth of Republicans likely to vote in the Iowa caucuses still said they were less likely to support Romney because of his religion. These Republicans overwhelmingly favored the populist Southern Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, according to an ABC News-Washington Post poll at the time.

Political perceptions rarely change with singular news events. The Mormon problem is compounded by the symbolic nature of the presidency. The president is not merely head of government. He is head of state. Nations like England separate the roles. Presidential campaigns test mainstream acceptance of politics and cultures.

‹‹Previous Page |1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | Next Page››

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

Mitt Romney for Mayor
Carl M. Cannon · November 16, 2014

David Paul Kuhn

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter