by Nancy Frazier O’Brien
WASHINGTON (CNS) – As seven Republican candidates for president prepared for a June 13 debate in New Hampshire and others waited in the wings, there were signs that religion will play as big a role in the 2012 election as it has in other recent campaigns.
Many of the declared or potential candidates lined up in Washington June 3-4 to address a “strategy briefing” sponsored by the Faith & Freedom Coalition, an organization headed by Christian Coalition founding executive director Ralph Reed, and to pledge their commitment to the coalition’s views on abortion, same-sex marriage and similar social issues.
Polling in early June by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., showed that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had more support among Republican or Republican-leaning independent voters than any other GOP candidate, with 25%. Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor who is not an official candidate, received support from 15% of the poll respondents, with businessman Herman Cain at 9%
But another part of the Quinnipiac survey offered less promising information to the Romney campaign.
Asked to assess their comfort level with the faith of presidential candidates, 36% of the poll respondents said they felt somewhat uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with a Mormon candidate.
Only 13% said they would be uncomfortable with a Catholic candidate, while 59% said they would not be comfortable with a Muslim candidate and 60% said a candidate who was an atheist would make them uncomfortable.
Both Romney and another possible candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., have ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, although Huntsman said in a recent Time magazine interview that it is “tough to define” whether he is still a member of the church. “I’m a very spiritual person and proud of my Mormon roots,” he said.
Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said the poll showed “that the American people – especially Democrats – have many more questions about a Mormon in the White House than they do about followers of other religions.”
The current slate of declared or possible GOP presidential candidates includes several Catholics – former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and current New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Several belong to nondenominational Christian churches or evangelical branches of mainline denominations. Palin, who has said she was baptized Catholic, attends Wasilla Bible Church in Alaska. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was raised a Catholic, is a member of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota belongs to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was raised a Lutheran and had each of his five children baptized as Episcopalians, but now attends the First Baptist Church of Lake Jackson, Texas.
Cain, the former president and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, is the most overtly religious candidate so far, serving as an associate minister at Antioch Baptist Church North in Atlanta.
Although more than half of the 44 presidents in U.S. history have belonged to one of three mainline denominations — Episcopalian, Presbyterian or Methodist — none of the declared Republican candidates is a member of any of those churches. Among the leading undeclared but possible candidates, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is a Methodist.