Religion has played a prominent role in presidential elections for decades. The public has again and again elected a Protestant male president. That status quo changed when John F. Kennedy was elected in 1961 as the first Catholic president, and, it could change again in 2012.
Two of the 2012 Republican Party presidential candidates — Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman — are Mormon.
Romney’s religion played a substantial role in his 2008 presidential bid, with prejudices and suspicion surrounding his campaign. Three years later his religion has once again crept into the political spotlight.
While introducing Texas Gov. Rick Perry last Friday at the Values Voter Summit, a Christian conservative gathering in Washington D.C., Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas called Romney “a good moral person” but said Mormonism “has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity.”
Perry distanced himself from the comments.
Contrary to Jeffress’ anti-Mormon attitude, a majority of people polled in June 2011 said they would vote for a Mormon. The Gallup poll showed 22 percent of people are “hesitant to support Mormons” for political office.
“I am interested in the fact it has taken so long for people to play the Mormon card this time around,” said 23-year-old Matt Frei, a political science major at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. “To say our faith is like a cult is not at all an accurate representation of our church.”
While religion can influence some voters, the best predictors of voter turn out are education, income and perceived competitiveness of the race, said Kelly Patterson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
Millennials focusing on candidates’ platform rather than religion
As a devout Mormon, Frei said he likes candidates who pray to God and have a strong faith, but his voting decision are based more heavily on a candidates overall campaign.
“I like the idea of a candidate being religious,” said Frei, who is also a student research fellow for the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to vote for any Mormon candidate who runs for office. We should vote for those who will do the best job in leading our country.”
Samantha Sisskind, president of the Georgetown University Jewish Student Association, said she will look at a candidate’s strength of character, and stance on economic, social and national security issues when deciding whom to vote for in 2012.
“My political views are related to my morals and Judaism,” said Sisskind, a 20-year-old international politics major. “Just because Romney’s a Mormon wouldn’t affect whether I would vote for him.”
Romney has been tight lipped about directly talking about his faith on the campaign trail. He has preached religious tolerance, but has not specifically addressed negative rhetoric about the Mormon faith.
Katy Roberts, a 22-year-old Universalist, respects Romney’s privacy to practice religion and doesn’t want to judge him based on his faith. She believes that religion is a personal matter and thinks politicians shouldn’t claim religion as a skill.
Roberts, a psychology major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says she does not consider religious affiliation much when voting.
“Unfortunately no matter what he says, people are going to go with the belief that they have about the Mormon faith,” Roberts said. “I would love for him to clarify where he stands in the Mormon faith, but I don’t think that would help his campaign in running for office.”
Another 22-year-old Nebraska student, Patrick Barney, who is Muslim, said he doesn’t care much about a candidate’s religion either.
“I want a candidate who is respectful of all religions,” the international studies major said.
The Mormon faith has not stopped Kyle Hall, a Baptist political science major at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill from supporting Jon Huntsman. Hall, 21, likes Huntsman because he has strong foreign policy experience — he is former U.S. Ambassador to China — and Huntsman has a track record for creating a lot of jobs during his stint as Utah’s governor.
“Huntsman’s religion hasn’t event crossed my mind as an issue. I don’t understand why it would be,” Hall said. “I have friends who are Mormon and they don’t believe anything much different than I do. We all believe in the same creator.”
Mormon turnout for GOP
Mormons tend to align with conservative social and economic ideology. A 2010 Gallup poll found that Mormons identify with conservative ideology more than any other U.S. religion group.
The Republican Party really began shoring up Mormon votes in the 70s and 80s, Patterson said. Specifically, the way Ronald Regan led the Republican Party was gravitating for Mormons, he said.
Patterson said he doesn’t know if Mormons are concerned with anti-Mormon language — they are used to hearing it. Much of the anti-Mormon language has come from conservatives, but Patterson said it’s too soon to say if that will affect Mormons’ support for the GOP.
“The extent that there is any coverage at all on the Mormon faith is information that is more likely to come to the attention of LDS voters,” Patterson said. “LDS voters will be more likely to turn out and vote in a general election.”
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