Why Mormonism might not be a problem for Mitt Romney

A poll released Wednesday suggests that a minority of Americans are 'entirely comfortable' with the idea of a Mormon president. But voters' concerns about the problems facing the country might override any concern they have about Mitt Romney's religion.

Joshua Roberts/REUTERS
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters after speaking at the Faith and Freedom Coalition in Washington June 3.

The latest Quinnipiac poll reinforces the idea that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could face problems over his Mormon faith in his quest for the presidency.

The poll, released Wednesday, found that only 35 percent of American voters are “entirely comfortable” with the idea of having a president who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That falls well below American comfort levels with a Catholic president (60 percent), Jewish president (55 percent), and Evangelical Christian (43 percent), but ahead of an atheist (24 percent) or a Muslim (21 percent).

Most American presidents have adhered to mainline Protestant religions, with the Catholic President Kennedy being an important, groundbreaking exception.

When voters were asked if they have a generally favorable or unfavorable opinion of the Mormon religion, only 45 percent said “favorable,” according to the poll, conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Conn. Thirty-two percent said “unfavorable” and 23 percent either didn’t know or gave no answer.

“The fact that less than half of the voters have a favorable view of the religion is likely to be a political issue that Gov. Mitt Romney, and should his campaign catch on, Gov. Jon Huntsman, will have to deal with as they pursue the White House,” writes Peter Brown, the institute’s assistant director.

But it may just be, with all the pressing issues the nation faces, a candidate’s religion will rank far down in the list of priorities when voters go to the polls. The big concerns GOP voters express about Mr. Romney center on his Massachusetts health-care reform and his past policy flip-flops, not his religion.

For both Romney and Mr. Huntsman – like Romney the scion of a wealthy, Mormon family – the faith issue appears less of a problem with Republicans than with Democrats. The Quinnipiac poll found that a slim majority of Republicans – 51 percent – have a favorable opinion of the Mormon religion, versus 39 percent of Democrats. Thirty-one percent of Republicans have a negative view.

In addition, 68 percent of Republicans are comfortable with the idea of a Mormon president, compared with 49 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of independents. One might conclude, then, that Romney’s (or Huntsman’s) Mormon faith would be less of an issue in the GOP primary than in the general election.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that with such a large Republican field, if those leery of Mormonism were to coalesce around a non-Mormon, that could pose a problem for the Mormon candidates. But how likely is that to happen?

For now, Romney is picking up steam as the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination. He was the choice of 25 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters, followed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin with 15 percent (despite her lack of clarity on whether she’s running), and businessman Herman Cain with 9 percent. Huntsman got 1 percent.

In the last national Quinnipiac poll of GOP voters, taken April 26 to May 1, Romney got 18 percent and Ms. Palin got 15 percent.

The Quinnipiac poll did not ask voters why they might have concerns about a Mormon in the White House. But in a way, it’s hard to see what the problem could be.

As the latest cover of Newsweek points out, the nation is having a “Mormon moment,” with examples of successful church members at every turn, from the US Senate (majority leader Harry Reid) to “Highly Effective” author Stephen Covey to actress Katherine Heigl. On Broadway, the musical satire “The Book of Mormon” is a smash hit.

Mormons attest to the value their community places in family, hard work, and clean living. The church is now the fourth-largest religious denomination in the country, at 6 million members, with 14 million worldwide, according to Newsweek.

Of course, the church’s history of polygamy – a practice abandoned by mainstream Mormonism more than 100 years ago – is a continuing source of caricature. And the fact that Mormons follow an alternate scripture, in addition to the Bible, leads some Christians to declare Mormonism a non-Christian cult.

But with US unemployment now at 9.1 percent, the housing market still reeling, the nation mired in multiple wars, and a looming debt crisis, the focus on candidates’ faith may be overdone. If in November 2012 voters face a choice of President Obama and Romney, and all these problems continue to rage, where and how the Republican nominee chooses to worship probably won’t matter.


In the video below, Mitt Romney spoke in 2007 on Faith in America:

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