At Bloomberg, Jeffrey Goldberg wonders whether Mitt Romney’s religion would be treated differently in the media if he were Jewish. While Goldberg doesn’t completely answer the question, he does try to parse out why the Romney campaign has been so quiet on Mormonism:
So what does the Romney camp find so frightening? In talking to my Mormon friends (some of my best friends are Mormons), the answer is clear. The practices and origin stories of most religions, when viewed by outsiders, all seem fairly strange. But Mormonism seems just a bit stranger than the rest. The great fear is not that Americans will see a Mormon politician as too sinister to lead the country (the way that some Baptist leaders once saw the Catholic John F. Kennedy) but that Americans will see a Mormon as too bizarre to be president.
They point to the issue of “sacred underwear,” the derisive term for undergarments worn by some Mormons to remind themselves of their religious responsibilities. Many find the concept odd, but should they? Is Mormonism really that much stranger than other religions?
Goldberg is probably right that anti-Mormonism is more likely to take the form of ridicule than conspiracy-laced paranoia, but strains of both have still been given credence in the mainstream media. Last November, for example, the New York Times published a nasty attack on Mormonism by Harold Bloom, who argued that a Romney presidency would mean “a further strengthening of theocracy.” Later, a Salon article hinted that Romney was part of a plot for Mormon theocratic takeover.
The mockery, by the way, tends to be just as disturbing as the theocratic takeover theories. In April, Lawrence O’Donnell spewed out the following on his show:
Now, part of Romney’s religion problem is that he’s a part of a new religion. Established religions like Judaism, which is about 4,000 years old, and Christianity, which is about 2,000 years old, don’t easily warm up to new religions like Romney’s, which is only 182 years old. Mormonism was created by a guy in upstate New York in 1830 when he got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it. Forty-eight wives later, Joseph Smith’s lifestyle was completely sanctified in the religion he invented to go with it. Which Mitt Romney says he believes.
Imagine if an MSNBC anchor launched into a nationally televised rant denying the religious legitimacy of Judaism while criticizing a Jewish politician. Would he still be on the air? Would MSNBC at least have issued an apology?
Unlike anti-Semitism, anti-Mormonism is still considered an acceptable — some would say fashionable — prejudice in many circles. Recent polls show that it is actually increasing among those supposed pillars of enlightened tolerance, self-proclaimed liberals like Lawrence O’Donnell.
It would be fantastic if Romney would talk freely about his religion with the media, but his reluctance is understandable, considering his political history. As Seth wrote recently, anti-Mormonism stung Romney in his Senate race against Ted Kennedy. In a 1994 C-SPAN interview, current Romney strategist Stu Stevens — who was a GOP consultant at the time — said that “the Kennedy campaign very insidiously played the Mormon card in Massachusetts, by simply saying over and over again they weren’t going to talk about the fact that Romney was a Mormon.”
If Romney broaches the issue, it gives others — liberal pundits, columnists, Democratic strategists — an opening to talk about the religion in a pernicious way. And because many people aren’t aware of the problem of anti-Mormonism, because it’s tolerated by liberals and academics, and because there is no comparable Mormon version of the Anti-Defamation League, there won’t be a serious outcry.
So yes, Romney should have confidence in his religion. But it also isn’t Romney’s responsibility to challenge and fend off the prejudice, mockery and paranoid theories that his religion is faced with daily.