Can a Mormon Become President?

By David Paul Kuhn - June 6, 2011

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Consider the quarter of Republicans who said in 2007 that they were less likely to back a Mormon candidate. Two-thirds of them had a favorable view of Rudy Giuliani. Six in 10 had a favorable view of John McCain. Yet little more than a third of those Republicans had a favorable view of Romney. This large gap in candidate perceptions does not exist among those Republicans who said Mormonism was "different" or not a "Christian religion."

Pew found this May that voters less likely to support a Mormon candidate remain significantly less likely to back Romney. Only about one in three adults with a negative view of a Mormon candidate say there is some chance they would vote for Romney in 2012. Yet a clear majority, 57 percent, of Americans who would vote for a Mormon candidate say there is a chance they'll vote for Romney. The presidency evokes a distinctive cultural litmus test.

Not Only an Evangelical Issue

The intra-Christian debate tends to consume the political media. Evangelicals constitute nearly half of the Republican primary electorate. In 2008, six in 10 voters in Iowa and South Carolina were evangelicals.

These born-again Christians are often described synonymously with anti-Mormon sentiment. "Will Evangelicals Sink Romney?" asked a recent Atlantic magazine headline. The question tends to segregate anti-Mormonism to one slice of the electorate.

There is some truth to this generalization. In 2007 and 2009, nearly two-fifths of evangelicals viewed Mormons unfavorably, compared to about a fifth of non-evangelical Christians. That evangelical gap was greater on the right. Slightly more than two-fifths of evangelical Republicans viewed Mormons negatively. Only about a tenth of non-evangelical Christian Republicans agreed.

But Mormon's challenge is hardly limited to evangelicals. Liberals, for example, have a colder view of Mormon candidates. Democrats are more likely to disapprove of Mormonism in general than Republicans -- by a margin of 53 to 39 percent in 2009. Democratic partisans also hold a significantly more unfavorable view of Mormons than Republican partisans -- 36 to 24 percent, respectively.

There is little reason to believe the Mormon challenge will end with the GOP primary, should Romney or Huntsman win the nomination. Consider the traditional definition of independents, which includes adults who lean toward a major party. Among all independents in 2009, four in 10 had an unfavorable view of Mormons. Three in 10 Democrats today, compared to about a quarter of Republicans, say they would be less likely to support a Mormon presidential candidate. And, notably, a fifth of independents also agree.

There is a heightened antagonism towards the LDS church on the flanks of American politics. Today, one-third of white evangelicals say they are less likely to vote for a Mormon. About four in 10 liberal Democrats agree. In 2009, roughly the same share of Republican evangelicals viewed Mormons unfavorably as did "very liberal" Americans.

Mormons are the most conservative religious group. About six in 10 LDS members identify as conservative, according to Gallup. This partly explains the tension between Mormons and the left. That tension came to a head in 2008 when same-sex marriage was outlawed in California. Mormons strongly supported the ban on gay marriage. Gay groups were enraged. As the San Francisco Chronicle headlined: "Mormons face flak for backing Prop. 8."

The tension between Mormons and traditional conservatives is not political in nature, it is doctrinal. Conservative Christians particularly wrestle with Mormonism's claim to a new New Testament. Huckabee waded into this area in a New York Times Magazine article in late 2007: "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" (For the record, Mormon's don't.) Yet not only conservatives take this route. Slate magazine editor Jacob Weisberg, a prominent liberal writer, wrote in 2006 that Mormon's founder, Joseph Smith, was a con man. "Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don't want him running the country," Weisberg argued.

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

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