BOSTON — Most traditional barriers to religion in presidential elections have toppled, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found. In particular, the survey to be released Monday showed that anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism are fading as voter taboos.
But uneasiness about some religions persists. Thirty-seven percent of those questioned said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate — and 54 percent said no to the prospect of a Muslim in the White House.
In addition, 21 percent said they could not vote for an evangelical Christian. Only 15 percent replied that they would not vote for a Jewish presidential candidate. Just 10 percent of those polled were unwilling to cast ballots for a Catholic chief executive.
“This clearly shows that the old Protestant/Catholic/Jewish distinction has largely eroded in American politics,” said David Campbell, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. “That doesn’t mean that candidates from religious groups that might be considered to be exotic, in the way that Catholics once were thought to be exotic, wouldn’t necessarily be confronted with challenges.”
The nationwide survey of 1,321 adults was conducted June 24-27. The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, poll director Susan Pinkus said.
With no likely Muslim candidate on the presidential horizon, the poll numbers present the greatest threat to a potential contender from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as the Mormon Church is formally known). Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is a Mormon who is exploring a run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
“It is something he will have to address,” said MerleBlack, a professor of politics at Emory University. “It will be a challenge. It doesn’t necessarily kill him as a candidate, but he may have to talk in more detail than he ever has before about his faith.”
His religion apparently was no detriment in Massachusetts in 2002, when he easily won election as governor. Massachusetts is one of the most heavily Catholic states in the country, and also one of the most Democratic.
The governor hails from a family that is almost as political as it is Mormon. His late father, George Romney, was a three-term governor of Michigan who also made a brief, unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination. Lenore Romney, the Massachusetts governor’s late mother, lost a Republican bid for the U.S. Senate.
Romney, who made a fortune as a venture capitalist, suffered defeat in his maiden political outing in 1994 when he ran against Democrat Edward M. Kennedy for a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts.
As a young man, Mitt Romney was a Mormon missionary in France. He graduated from Brigham Young University, an LDS-sponsored institution. Romney has been a Mormon bishop, and was president of the LDS stake — or congregation — in Belmont, Mass., where he settled with his family more than 30 years ago.
His great-grandfather had five wives, but Romney has disavowed polygamy — a practice that no longer is condoned by the LDS hierarchy. The Mormon Church claims about 12.5 million members worldwide, according to the church Web site; almost half are in the United States.
Romney is reluctant to discuss his religion, citing privacy and contending that candidates should not be judged on their “brand of faith.” But he regularly describes himself as a Christian who believes that “Jesus Christ is my savior.”
But some branches of Christianity are less than eager to embrace the Mormon Church. On its Web site, the Southern Baptist Convention includes Mormonism in a section called “cults, sects and new religious movements.” Kenyn Cureton, a vice president of the Baptist convention, said his church does not regard Mormons as Christians.
“They are not orthodox in their beliefs,” Cureton said. “They have additional books that they add to the Bible, which evangelical Christians believe is God’s word. They believe that there are many, many gods and that you, too, can become a god in your own world. It sounds good, but unfortunately it is not based on sound teaching.”
Cureton praised Mormons as “very moral, very family-oriented people.” Southern Baptists, he said, “would appreciate that angle. But as far as our beliefs, we would have disagreements.”
Republican political consultant Mike Murphy, who advised Romney in his gubernatorial bid, said any discussion about Romney’s religion as a potential political obstacle was premature — and probably misplaced. Murphy also has counseled the Massachusetts governor as he tests the waters for the 2008 presidential race.
“I think the poll is wrong,” Murphy said. “I think this is a classic example of how with polling data, you can find something that is not predictive at all.”
If his religion was the only thing voters knew about Romney in a “hypothetical candidacy,” that could be an impediment, Murphy said.
“If he runs, I think he won’t be judged only through that prism,” he said. “When you break it down to one aspect for a guy, that is a mistake. Polls, I am sure, said the exact same thing about John F. Kennedy a year before he ran.”
In a Roper poll from June 1960, 35 percent of respondents said either that it might be better not to have a Catholic president, or that they would be against it. Then-Sen. John F. Kennedy addressed the Southern Leadership Conference on the subject of his religion that September, and was elected president two months later.
But Emory University political scientist Black rejected the comparison to earlier political biases against Catholic or Jewish candidates.
“I don’t think it is of the same status, because Mormonism has never been seen as a mainstream religion,” Black said.
According to Campbell, “The question facing Mitt Romney is, will he be the Mormons’ Al Smith — who was the first Catholic ever to run for president in 1928, and went down in flames. Or will he be the Mormons’ John F. Kennedy?”
Times Poll Associate Director Jill Darling Richardson contributed to this report.
July 2, 2006
Elizabeth Mehren, Times Staff Writer