The New York Times reports today the Mormon church is embarking on a major national advertising buy that seeks to disabuse Americans of the idea that members of their faith are “secretive” or “cultish.” The “I’m a Mormon” campaign, which will feature all sorts of all-American and ethnic types speaking of their faith, seems like straightforward public relations. The problem for the church is that in a year in which two Latter Day Saints are presidential candidates — Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman — any such effort may be seen as smoothing the path for a Mormon to get to the White House.
But any criticism of the Mormon advertising push as a political ploy misunderstands the church’s dilemma. The very real possibility that Romney will be the Republican nominee may present more problems for Mormons than anything else. Given the enormous prejudice against adherents of that religion that still exists and the fact that it is one of the few forms of religious bias still considered socially acceptable to openly advocate, Mormons are bracing for a year in which the abuse they are already taking in popular culture will only increase. Under the circumstances, a push to reduce this form of hatred is not only good for the church and its members, but for society as a whole.
You have to be living in an isolated compound in Utah not to know it is open season on Mormons these days in American popular culture. Broadway’s number one hit musical spoofs their holy book and their lifestyle. The HBO series “Big Love” and popular reality TV shows have highlighted the tiny minority of Mormons who practice polygamy. A car dealership in northern New Jersey owned by former New York Giants football player Brad Benson even included a joke about Romney shopping for new wives in a radio commercial aimed at convincing people to buy Hyundais.
As bad as that might be, what’s even worse is that expressing open contempt for the Mormon faith, unlike other forms of religious hate speech, does not generally bring down opprobrium on the speaker. When a pastor who supported Rick Perry denounced the Mormon faith and said evangelicals should not vote for a Mormon for president, the resulting firestorm did not generate much outrage from other Republicans. But liberals are just as bad. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd responded to that kerfuffle with a column in which she actually far outdid Pastor Robert Jeffress in terms of heaping abuse on the Mormon religion and its adherents. Just as it is impossible to imagine a Broadway theater being the home of a musical version of “The Koran” rather than one heaping scorn on “The Book of Mormon,” so, too, is it hard to envision Dowd, or any other Times writer getting away with discussing Islam or even Judaism in the same manner.
These attitudes are also not confined to the elite. A Gallup poll released in June reported that more Americans asserted they would not vote for a Mormon for president than those with similar reservations about any other faith. The 22 percent who admitted to this bias is more than double the number who would not vote for a Jew or a Catholic. In an era where religious pluralism has become the norm, this relic of the ostracism and persecution faced by Mormons in the 19th century is puzzling, especially since it is doubtful most Americans are all that aware of the history of the period when Mormons were polygamous or fought against the federal government.
One needn’t sympathize with the theology of the LDS Church to understand this prejudice against a population otherwise among the most productive and upstanding demographic groups in the nation is a nasty business that ought to be eradicated. I don’t know whether the “I’m a Mormon” campaign will help or hurt Romney, whose candidacy will rise and fall on his own merits. But any effort to counter this last acceptable hate ought to be welcomed, not criticized.