Can a Mormon Become President?

Can a Mormon Become President?

By David Paul Kuhn - June 6, 2011

The question still shadows Mitt Romney. He officially rolled out his campaign last week. And there was his picture on the cover of Newsweek, his face transposed over an image from a new Broadway musical satirizing Mormonism. And there was Romney himself on NBC's "Today" show, echoing his words of more than four years ago: "We're not electing a pastor in chief, we're electing a commander in chief."

Romney bears the question like a familiar limp. He's aware his religion hinders his run for the presidency. But how much? RealClearPolitics set out to answer that question, conducting the most extensive analysis to date on Mormonism and the American presidency.

One in four Americans -- including about a quarter of Republicans as well -- consistently say they are less likely to support a presidential candidate who is Mormon. Those views did not abate with Romney's first run for the presidency, according to Pew Research Center surveys from 2007, 2009 and 2011.

Last year, a Time magazine cover story posed a familiar question: "Is America Islamophobic?" This question could be posed regarding Mormonism. The share of Americans with an unfavorable perception of the religion was 27 percent in 2009. A third of Americans held a similarly negative perception of Islam. By comparison, about one in 10 Americans viewed Jews in a poor light.

Mormon candidates' challenge goes beyond any one party or slice of the electorate. Negative views of Mormons are strongest on the left. But these views generally transcend partisanship in a way perceptions of Muslims do not. Slightly more than a fifth of Republicans and Democrats view the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) unfavorably. A sizable minority of independents also tell pollsters they are less likely to vote for a candidate who is Mormon.

Yet too much can be made of this Mormon problem. Romney's religion was not the "most important factor" in how Americans evaluated him four years ago, as one academic study concluded. Mormonism does not explain why Romney lost last time. Nor is it his greatest hurdle this time. But it remains a serious challenge for Romney and for fellow Mormon Republican Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor who is considering entering the race.

The persistence of that challenge alone is remarkable. Nine in 10 adults told Gallup pollsters they would vote for a qualified female presidential candidate by 2000. Nearly all Americans said they would elect a black candidate by the turn of the century. In 1967, only a slim majority of Americans told Gallup they would vote for a black or female candidate. Yet since 1967, the share of the public willing to vote for a qualified Mormon presidential candidate has remained relatively constant, bobbing between 72 and 80 percent. Witness the Mormon glass ceiling.

An Old Problem

Romney's father was once considered a nominal front-runner himself. George Romney sought the 1968 GOP nomination. It's often said that the father, unlike the son, did not suffer anti-Mormonism. That's true only as a matter of degree. George Romney was shadowed by his own Mormon question.

Life magazine profiled the elder Romney in May 1967. Paragraphs detailed the religion's origins and beliefs. It noted that Romney has the "deepest faith in what must be one of the world's most fundamentalist religions," and mentioned how he fasts and prays before major decisions. It told the story of Mitt's grandfather. George Romney was raised in a Mormon settlement in Mexico; the settlement was originally founded by LDS members who fled Utah to practice polygamy after the Mormon church officially abandoned "plural marriage" and practitioners were jailed. The writer was careful to note that George was raised in a monogamist home.

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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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