One of the unpleasant aspects of analysis of the 2012 election is the fact that religious prejudice is likely to play a not insignificant role in determining the outcome. That’s confirmed once again by a Gallup Poll that reaffirms the persistence of anti-Mormon bias among the voting public. As previous surveys have shown, more Americans are still willing to say they won’t vote for a Mormon for president than those who refuse to support a Catholic or a Jew. And whereas the numbers of those expressing such prejudice against Catholics and Jews have declined during the last half-century, resistance to a Mormon commander-in-chief remains more or less constant during the same period. This makes it a possibility that to some degree Mitt Romney’s chances of being elected president will be diminished by lingering anti-Mormon attitudes.
However, the good news for Romney is that the number of those saying they will not vote for a Mormon has actually declined in the last year from 22 to 18 percent. Of course, that means the number is pretty much the same as it was in 1967, a sobering realization for those who might think religious prejudice is a thing of the past. But the decline may have more to do with support for the Republican candidate than anything else. Because there has probably been more Mormon-bashing in the mainstream media and popular culture in the last 12 months than in recent memory, for there to be a drop in anti-Mormon prejudice means rather than feeding bias, the Romney candidacy has put a dent in it. That bodes well for the GOP in the fall.
As Gallup notes in its analysis, John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960 despite the fact that a quarter of Americans said they couldn’t vote for a Catholic. But as bad as anti-Catholic attitudes were at the time, the spate of openly prejudiced pieces against Mormons in this year may stand out even more in the current context in which the expression of such sentiments are considered beyond the pale in a secular American culture where religious divisions are generally treated as irrelevant if not antediluvian. Given the hysteria in the media that anyone might think President Obama has any connection to the Muslim faith in which his father was raised, the willingness to mock Mormons in the op-ed pages of the New York Times and on Broadway makes it appear that this prejudice is one of the last socially acceptable forms of bias among the chattering classes though Catholics could rightly complain that the scorn directed at their beliefs puts them in a similar position.
If the number of those willing to chime in with the contempt of a Maureen Dowd or a hit Broadway play is going down, it may be a barometer of Romney’s personal appeal more than anything else. That may be especially true with evangelicals who don’t think Mormons are Christians but regard the defeat of President Obama as a higher priority. The president has many advantages in the coming race, including the power of incumbency, the historic nature of his presidency and the lapdog quality of much of the mainstream media’s coverage of his administration. But though prejudice against Mormons is still considerable, it is no guarantee of Romney’s defeat.