On Thursday, Dec. 6, Mitt Romney delivered a speech addressing his Mormon faith and the role of religion in public life. Recent polling from the Pew Research Center1 finds that Romney, more than any other presidential candidate (Republican or Democrat), is viewed as very religious by the public. This perception is, for the most part, an asset for Romney’s campaign, since the poll also finds that voters who see presidential candidates as religious express more favorable views toward these candidates. But the advantage Romney stands to gain from these perceptions is partially offset by the concerns of some Americans about the Mormon religion, as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is popularly known.
A new Pew Research Center survey finds that only 42% of the public can correctly identify Romney as a Mormon, although a higher number of Republicans (60%) are aware of his religious affiliation. Overall, one-in-four respondents to a recent nationwide Pew survey said that they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate for president, and those who take this point of view express substantially more negative views of Romney, compared with those who express no such reservations about voting for a Mormon.
This reluctance appears to be based on a mixture of negative perceptions and a lack of knowledge about Mormonism. Barely half of the public (49%) says they know “a great deal” or “some” about the Mormon religion, and just 25% believe that the Mormon religion and their own religion have a lot in common. Just 53% of the public expresses a favorable opinion of Mormons. Moreover, three-in-ten Americans (31%) say they do not believe that Mormons are Christians, and another 17% say they are unsure about this.
Romney and Religion
The August Pew poll found that 46% of the public says that Mitt Romney is very religious. This is comparable to the percentage saying that George W. Bush is very religious and is much greater than for any other presidential candidate in the race for either party’s nomination.
But Romney’s perceived religiosity is not an unambiguous benefit to his candidacy, since many Americans are reluctant to vote for a Mormon for president. Though Mormonism is viewed as far less of a liability for a presidential candidate than not believing in God or being a Muslim, more people do express reservations about voting for a Mormon (25%) than about supporting a candidate who is an evangelical Christian (16%), a Jew (11%) or a Catholic (7%).
Furthermore, the group of Americans most likely to say they value religiosity in a president – white evangelical Protestants – is also the group most apt to be bothered by his religion. More than one-in-three evangelical Republicans (36%) expressed reservations about voting for a Mormon, a level of opposition much higher than that seen among the electorate overall.
These worries are directly linked to how Americans view Romney. The August Pew poll found that Romney’s favorability rating was much lower (54%) among those who say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon than among those without such reservations (81%).
Overall Views of Mormons and Mormonism
Overall, a slim majority of the public (53%) expresses a favorable view of Mormons, while 27% view Mormons unfavorably. By this measure, the public views Mormons more favorably than Muslims (43% favorable) and atheists (35%) but more negatively compared with evangelical Christians (60% favorable), Catholics and Jews (76% favorable for each group).
There are virtually no partisan differences in overall views of Mormons; slightly more than half of all Republicans (54%), Democrats (53%) and independents (55%) express favorable views.
There are larger differences, though, across religious groups. Solid majorities of white mainline Protestants (62%) and white non-Hispanic Catholics (59%) express favorable opinions of Mormons. But among white evangelical Protestants, just 46% have a positive impression of Mormons, while 39% have an unfavorable opinion.
There also are substantial educational differences in opinions about Mormons: 64% of college graduates express favorable opinions of Mormons, as do 56% of those with some college experience. But fewer than half of those with a high school education or less (45%) have a positive impression of Mormons.
A slim majority of the public (52%) says that Mormonism is a Christian religion, while nearly one-in-three (31%) say that Mormonism is not a Christian religion. White evangelicals stand out for their view that the Mormon religion is not Christian: a 45% plurality says that Mormonism is not Christian, while 40% say it is. Among white evangelicals who attend services at least weekly, 52% believe that the Mormon religion is not Christian.
By contrast, large majorities of white mainline Protestants (62%) and white non-Hispanic Catholics (59%) say that Mormons are Christians. In addition, those with no formal religious affiliation also say by greater than two-to-one that the Mormon religion is Christian (59%-25%).
Even though a majority of the public views Mormonism as a Christian religion, most Americans say it is very different from their own religion. Among non-Mormons who express a religious preference, more than six-in-ten (62%) say that Mormonism and their own religion are very different; just a quarter says that Mormonism and their own religion have a lot in common. The vast majority of white evangelical Protestants (67%) reject the idea that Mormonism and their own religion have a lot in common, as do smaller majorities of white mainline Protestants (56%) and white non-Hispanic Catholics (61%).
Mormonism in a Word
When asked to describe their impression of the Mormon religion in a single word, somewhat more (27%) offer a negative word than a positive one (23%); 19% give a neutral descriptor. The most common negative word expressed is “polygamy,” including “bigamy” or some other reference to plural marriage (75 total responses), followed by “cult” (57 total mentions). But while many people associate polygamy with Mormonism, nearly as many think of “family” or “family values” (74 total mentions). Other positive words commonly used to describe Mormonism include “dedicated” (34 mentions), “devout” or “devoted” (32 mentions), “good” (31 mentions), and “faith” or “faithful” (25 total mentions).
This analysis was written by Scott Keeter, Director of Survey Research, Pew Research Center, and Gregory Smith, Research Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
1This analysis is based on a survey conducted August 1-18, 2007, by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. It draws heavily on two previous reports, “Clinton and Giuliani Seen as Not Highly Religious; Romney’s Religion Raises Concerns,” and “Public Expresses Mixed Views of Islam, Mormonism.”