W. Mitt Romney & Jon M. Huntsman, Jr.’s Dueling Quest for the Presidency:
A Mormon Moment…Or the Mormon Question, Revisited?
by Newell G. Bringhurst
The rival presidential campaigns of Mormon candidates W. Mitt Romney and Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. have attracted significant attention both within the Latter-day Saint community and the larger American society. This contest has been dubbed by some in the media as “the Mormon Primary” and/or “Mormon melee.”1 Others have used the term “Mormon Moment” in placing this event within the broader framework of a heightened American awareness of the LDS Church and increased prominence of things Mormon. Newsweek magazine in an upbeat June 2011 feature story with Mitt Romney adorning the cover, proclaimed: “Mormons Rock! They’ve conquered Broadway, Talk Radio, the U.S. Senate—and they may win the White House. Why Mitt Romney and 6 million Mormons have the Secret to Success.” It concluded: “The moment reminds [one] of the way John F. Kennedy’s  election shaped Catholicism in the American mind.”2
By contrast, The Economist, a British-based publication presented the Romney-Huntsman GOP contest in a more sober light, asking, “Can a Mormon get to the White House?” In discussing this, the so-called “Mormon Question,” the article stated that both men “seem determined to test the limits of discrimination,” noting that for most of the 181 years since the LDS Church’s founding the idea of two extremely “prominent Mormons” dueling “for the [nation's] highest office would have been unthinkable.”3
This all leads to a basic question: Are we, indeed, at a “Mormon Moment,” or about to revisit the Mormon Question anew—the latter a major factor in derailing Mitt Romney’s 2008 quest for the presidency. Looking toward 2012 and the competing campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, this question is considered relative to its impact on the LDS Church and its rank-and-file membership. In exploring this issue a series of six related questions are considered: First, how has the LDS Church, as an institution, responded to having two nationally-prominent Mormons competing to become president? Second, how have Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman handled the issue of their Latter-day Saint faith during their respective campaigns? A third related question is: How have LDS Church members reacted to the manner in which the two candidates have responded to questions concerning their Mormonism? Fourth, how have rank-and-file Latter-day Saints responded to the presidential campaigns of the two? Fifth, how has the LDS Church as an institution and its members reacted to evangelical anti-Mormon rhetoric prompted by their campaign activities? And finally, how much of a factor will the Mormon Question be in determining success of either candidate to achieve the nation’s highest office?
Turning to the first question: How has the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as an institution reacted to the active presidential campaigns of the two Mormon candidates? In response, the LDS Church has issued a series of three official statements over the past seven months. The first came in February 2011 as both candidates were attracting increased national attention. It reaffirmed the Church’s long-standing position of political neutrality, stating: “The Church is strictly neutral in matters of party politics and will not comment at all on the personalities and platforms of the candidates, whether or not they are members of the church and irrespective of their party affiliation.”4
A second statement in 16 June 2011 immediately following Mitt Romney’s formal announcement of candidacy, and just prior to Jon Huntsman’s reiterated the Church’s official position of political neutrality, but allowed for Church member involvement in political party contests, albeit under strict guidelines.5 And in early July 2011 the Church issued yet a third statement reiterating its position of “Political Neutrality.”6
I turn next to the second question: “How have Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman handled issues concerning their Latter-day Saint faith and the Mormon Question within the context of their respective presidential campaigns? Romney addressed the Mormon Question in February 2010 when asked by a reporter: “Will being a Mormon hurt your chances if you run again in 2012?” He did concede that: “A small sliver of voters measure candidates in part on their faith” but optimistically added, “the great majority don’t do that.”7 A year later, when asked directly how his faith might influence his policy as president Romney bluntly stated: “I am not running for pastor-in-chief.”8 In a June 2011 interview talk show host Piers Morgan asked Romney directly “whether it’s actually possible to separate his faith from his job as president” Romney answered: “Absolutely. You don’t begin to apply doctrines of a religion to the responsibility of guiding a nation or guiding a state.”9
Jon Huntsman responded quite differently to questions surrounding his own Mormonism. When asked in a June 2011 interview: “Are Americans ready to elect a Mormon?” He stated: “I think it’s a non-issue; it’s [Mormonism] a religion that’s surprisingly heterogeneous. And let me say, I’m a very spiritual person; I can’t walk into a church or synagogue without getting a little emotional…”10 As for his own beliefs, Huntsman admitted to not being a “strict Mormon” even though he had served a two-year LDS mission in Taiwan.11 He was not asked nor did he say what he meant by “strict Mormon” but in a 2010 Fortune magazine interview he confessed: “I can’t say I am overly religious…I get satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies,”12
A third related question is: How have LDS Church members reacted to the contrasting manner in which the two candidates have handled questions concerning their respective Mormon beliefs? The fact that Mitt Romney is a “devout Mormon who has organized his life around his faith” whereas Huntsman is “a more secularized figure…open about his distance from his church” has translated into much greater support for the former from LDS Church members.13 In a projected match up of the two candidates, Romney enjoyed a huge lead over Huntsman among Utah voters according to a July 2011 July 2011 Public Policy poll. In the survey, Romney was the choice of 85% while just 11% preferred Huntsman.14 Romney, moreover, has prevailed over Huntsman in securing endorsements from influential LDS officeholders, including incumbent Utah Governor, Gary Herbert, current US Senator Orrin Hatch, former US Senator Gordon Smith, and incumbent US Representative Jason Chaffetz.15
The contrasting views of Romney and Huntsman relative to their Mormon faith raises yet a fourth question: How have rank-and-file LDS Church members reacted to the fact of two high-profile Mormons competing for the nation’s highest office? While there is agreement that this development guarantees the Mormon Church “a place in the national spotlight” Latter-day Saints are divided as to whether it will ultimately help or hurt the church.16 On the negative side “having two Mormon candidates in the race could intensify…scrutiny on the [LDS] Church.” This, in turn, raises other concerns: “Should the church respond to each charge about each tenet? If it does, will Mormon leaders appear partisan or defensive? If not, will critics define both the faith and the candidates unfairly.”17
On the positive side, certain Latter-day Saints have “expressed some optimism that candidacies [of] both Romney and Huntsman could help portray Mormonism as a big-tent religion.”18 Others have expressed hope that two Mormons running at the same time might “make the [LDS] Church seem less exotic.” Kirk Jowers, Director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah and a Latter-day Saint feels that the fact that Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman each “look at the world differently” and manifest starkly differing “political views” presents the Church as “more mainstream.”19 In agreement is Notre Dame Political Science Professor, David Campbell, also a Mormon, who asserted that such a contest “would be good for the church” in that it would “totally change the dynamic of the way Mormonism is discussed.” Likewise, University of Akron Professor John Green believes that having two Mormon candidates in the race” makes the faith “less of an anomaly” suggesting that it might lead to a “greater acceptance” of Latter-day Saints by “the general public.”20
Latter-day Saint efforts to gain greater acceptance raises yet a fifth question: How has the LDS Church as an institution and its members reacted to evangelical anti-Mormon rhetoric inspired by the presidential campaigns of Romney and Huntsman? Among the most outspoken anti-Mormon evangelical commentators is Gary Glenn of the American Family Association Michigan chapter who in an open letter to his followers declared that Mitt Romney “simply doesn’t have a consistent worldview and much of what he does believe is contrary to the conservative and Christian worldview.”21 Similarly, Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, rejected the idea of supporting a Mormon presidential candidate with a pungent rhetorical question: “Why would we help the Competition?”22 Even more emphatic was evangelical author, Warren Cole Smith whose May 2011 online essay “A Vote for Romney is a vote for the LDS Church” attracted widespread attention. “To elect a Mormon president,” Smith warned, “would have the effect of actively promoting a false religion in the world” and “normalize the false teachings of Mormonism.” It would, moreover, give the LDS Church a major recruiting boost. 23
Quick to react to Smith’s allegations was Michael Otterson, head of public affairs for the LDS Church in an open letter posted on The Washington Post website. “I admit” Otterson wrote, “I’m struggling just a tad with your logic that the very fact of being a Mormon disqualifies a person from high public office.” In addressing Smith’s assertion that “the election of a Mormon president would somehow promote the Mormon faith” Otterson wrote: “This argument, while not new, is frightening in its implications.” He added: “Substitute the word ‘Jew’ for ‘Mormon’ and see how comfortable that feels. We may reasonably hope that most people vote on the basis of policy positions and not of denomination.” Otterson emphasized the strong relationships between evangelicals and Mormons. “Mormons across the country live side by side with evangelicals as neighbors, work associates and friends. There is much that they share.” He concluded by urging evangelicals and Mormons “to start trying to understand each other better.”24
Among the Latter-day Saints heeding Otterson’s advice to reach out to evangelicals was David Paulsen, BYU Emeritus Professor of Religious Understanding who asserted: “There is more in common with evangelicals and Mormons than there is between those faiths and other mainline Christian faiths. For example both groups believe the bible is an inspired work, both believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, in his atonement, in his resurrection, and when it comes to Christian fundamentals these groups hold very similar beliefs.” Likewise, Karen Trifiletti of the LDS online “More Good Foundation,” urged both Latter-day Saints and evangelicals to interface in constructive dialogue.25
A final bottom line question remains: How much of a factor will the Mormon Question be for Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman in their respective quests for the Republican presidential nomination? On the negative side is polling data gauging public opinion relative to the idea of a Mormon president. Some 25 percent of the American electorate has indicated that they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate who is Mormon according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in the Spring of 2011. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents 31 percent of white evangelicals say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon. This compares with 15 percent of non-evangelical Republicans who expressed the same concern. Such figures remain unchanged from those four years earlier.26
And within the last month the Mormon Question was raised anew first by Fox News commentator, Ainsley Earhardt and then by Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain. Earhardt underscored the liabilities of Romney’s Mormonism within the context of a Fox News discussion of the probable entry of Rick Perry into the GOP nomination contest, specifically, the ability of the Texas governor to raise sufficient funds with which to wage a credible campaign. “With the Christian Coalition [Perry] can get a lot of money from that base because Romney, obviously [is] not a Christian” Earhardt asserted, whereas the Texas governor is “always on… Christian talk shows [and] he’s always holding days of prayer.”27
Similarly, Republican presidential contender Herman Cain stated, flat out the Mitt Romney “cannot win the party’s White House nomination next year because of his religion.” Romney lacks sufficient voter support in the South, Cain asserts, given that region’s “high concentration of evangelical Protestants, many of whom doubt the legitimacy” of the LDS Church. He further noted that Romney failed to “do a good job in communicating his religion” to Southerners in his 2008 presidential campaign and, as a result, failed to win any states in this “the most solidly Republican region in the country.”28
On the more positive side, there are indications that the Mormon Question will be less important in determining the fate of Mitt Romney or for that matter, Jon Huntsman. Affirming this view is Gary Lawrence, a Southern California political pollster and also a Mormon who while conceding that “Mormonism will be a factor” in 2012 predicted that it would not be as important as it was four years earlier.29 And an optimistic, almost exuberant essay written for the LDS owned-and-operated Deseret News proclaimed: “Mounting evidence is increasingly pointing to a brave new world where the perceived biases that potentially derailed Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign are dissolving, and lo and behold, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could realistically be elected president in 2012.” 30
Also asserting that the Mormon Question could be less important in 2012 are political observers outside the LDS community. Suggesting this possibility is an essay on the GetReligion website responding to a January 2011 Time magazine article on Mitt Romney.31 Specifically, GetReligion cited the limited comment on Romney’s Mormon faith as evidence that “GOP voters have gotten over that and… moved on” further predicting that Romney’s religion “will not play a major role in the upcoming campaign.”32
In summary, I agree that the Mormon Question will be less of an issue in this election cycle. The fate of Mitt Romney, currently the front-runner for the Republican nomination, will be affected more by the way in which primary voters respond his record as Massachusetts governor and his earlier career as a businessman. Most crucial to Romney’s prospects will be his skill in convincing voters that he is the candidate best able to revitalize the American economy. As for Jon Huntsman, his prospects are much more problematic. He appears at this point a long-shot, at best, in securing the Republican nomination. His fate will be determined not by his Mormonism—which he has deliberately distanced himself from—but by his ability to gain national name recognition while selling rank-and-file Republican voters on his moderate-to-liberal record as Utah governor.
In conclusion, I would further suggest that if Romney is successful in securing the 2012 Republican nomination, this would be validation that the Mormon Moment has arrived, particularly if he defeats President Barack Obama in the general election. While some 21-25 percent of the American electorate are currently adverse to the idea of a Mormon President, it should be noted that back in 1960 “a solid 25 percent” of the American electorate were “staunchly against” the idea of a Catholic president just prior to John F. Kennedy’s historic election. That number dropped into the single digits immediately thereafter.33 Just as the so-called Catholic Question was overcome in that election, it is likewise possible that the Mormon Question could be put to rest in 2012, if Mitt Romney is similarly successful.
I end with a personal recollection, vividly recalling my own mother’s response to John F. Kennedy and the Catholic Question during the 1960 Election campaign. An active practicing Latter-day Saint, she confessed, to me, her strong reservations with the comment: “I don’t think that I could vote for a Catholic for president, because he would owe his primary allegiance to the Pope and not the U.S. Constitution.” Following that election I asked her how she felt about the result, and was dumbfounded, when she informed me that she had actually voted for Kennedy! She told me that she simply could not vote for his Republican rival in that election.
1 This term initially used by Molly Ball and Jonathan Martin in “The Mormon Primary: Romney vs. Huntsman, Politico, 3 February 2011 http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=A63766E5-6599-4489-93DB-6C8C8EDC7068 (accessed 4 February 2011). Also see: Jennifer Dobner & Philip Elliott, “Romney, Huntsman compete in Mormon Primary,” 23 June 2011, msnbc.com http://www.msnbc.msn.com/cleanprint (Accessed 24 June 2011)
2 Walter Kirn, “Mormons Rock!” Newsweek, 13& 20 June 2011, 3, 38.
3 “Mormons in politics: When the saints coming marching in,” The Economist, 5 March 2011, 34.
4 Peggy Fletcher Stack, “How 2012 campaigns could help, hurt LDS Church,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 3 February 2011.
5 “Political Party Participation of Presiding Church Officers” Newsroom: The Official Resource for News Media, Opinion Leaders, and the Public of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 16 June 2011. http://newsroom.lds.org/official-statement/ (accessed 15 July 2011)
6 Political Party Participation of Presiding Church Officers” Newsroom: The Official Resource for News Media, Opinion Leaders, and the Public of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
7 “Intelligence Report: Why Mitt Romney Won’t Apologize,” Parade, 21 February 2010, 8.
8 Kathleen Flake, “Believer of Convenience,” as contained in New York Times “Room for Debate: A Running Commentary of the News,” “Are Republicans Ready Now for a Mormon President?”, 4 July 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/07/04 (Accessed 5 July 2011)
9 Emily Friedman, “Romney: ‘If You Want to Learn More About My Church, Talk to My Church,” ABC News: The Note, 7 June 2011. http://blogs.abcnews.com/thenote (Accessed 11 June 2011).
10 Melinda Henneberger, “Q&A: Jon Huntsman,” Time Swampland, 16 May 2011 http://swampland.time.com/2011/05/16 (Accessed 10
11 Molly Ball and Jonathan Martin, “The Mormon Primary: Romney vs. Huntsman.”
12 As cited in Molly Ball and Jonathan Martin, “The Mormon Primary: Romney vs. Huntsman.”
13 Molly Ball and Jonathan Martin, “The Mormon Primary: Romney vs. Huntsman,” Politico, 3 February 2011 http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=A63766E5-6599-4489-93DB-6C8C8EDC7068
14 Jonathan Weisman, “Mormons Duck Political Dual,” The Wall Street Journal, 3 August 2011, 1,6.
15 Christian Heinze, “Utah politicians torn over Romney, Huntsman,” Ballot Box: The Hill’s Campaign Blog, 13 May 2011. http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box (Accessed 15 May 2011)
16 Peggy Fletcher Stack, “How 2012 campaigns could help, hurt LDS Church,” Salt Lake Tribune, 3 February 2011.
17 Jason Horowitz, “Presidential hopefuls Huntsman, Romney share Mormonism and belief in themselves,” The Washington Post, 4 March 2011. http://www.washingtonpost.com (Accessed 26 June 2011)
19 Molly Ball and Jonathan Martin, “The Mormon Primary: Romney vs. Huntsman.”
20Peggy Fletcher Stack, “How 2012 campaigns could help, hurt LDS Church,” Salt Lake Tribune, 3 February 2011.
21 Angurah Kumar, “Fox Host: Mitt Romney Obviously Not a Christian,” The Christian Post, 18 July 2011 http://www.christianpost.com, accessed 22 July 2011.
22 Jennifer Brooks, “Polls: Mormon candidates face religious bias,” Visalia Times-Delta, 23 June 2011, 4A.
23 Warren Cole Smith, “A Vote for Romney is a Vote for the LDS Church,” Patheos.org (24 May 2011), http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Vote-for-Romney-Is-a-Vote-for-the-LDS-Church-Warren-Cole-Smith-05-24-2011.html, accessed 13 June 2011.
24 Hal Boyd, “LDS public affairs rep responds to evangelical writer’s claim that voting for Mormons promote ‘dangerous religion,” Deseret News, 7 June 2011, http://www.deseretnews.com, accessed 8 June 2011.
26 Carroll Doherty, “The Polls Show Trouble,” in “Are Republicans Ready Now for a Mormon President?” The New York Times 4 July 2011, http://www.nytimes.com, accessed 5 July 2011.
27Brittany Green, “Fox News Anchor says Romney isn’t a Christian,” Fox 13, 17 July 2011.
28 Ralph Z. Hallow, “Cain: Romney’s Religion is a barrier to GOP nod,” The Washington Times, 18 July 2011, http://www.washingtontimes.com, accessed 22 July 2011.
29 Jennifer Dobner & Philip Elliot, “Romney, Huntsman compete in Mormon primary,”
30 Jamshid Ghazi Askar, “Analysis: How a Mormon can be U.S. President,” Deseret News, 1 February 2011.
31 Michael Scherer/Stratham, “Mitt Hits the Road Again,” Time, 31 January 2011, 30-33.
32 “Time test flies a faith-free Romney Story” Posted by tmatt on 25 January 2011 In Creeping Fundamentalism, Evangelicals, Mormons, People, Politics http:www.getreligion.org/2011/01/time-test-flies-faith-free-romney-story/print
33 Jennifer Brooks, “Polls: Mormon candidates face religious bias.”