Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mormonism

Dip in Anti-Mormon Bias a Plus for Romney

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.

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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.

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Thinking About If Romney Were Jewish?

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?

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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.

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