The White House has said it would treat Mitt Romney’s religion as off-limits for attacks, but apparently that message hasn’t filtered down to everyone in the Democratic Party. In an article published in the Daily Beast Thursday night, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer was quoted letting loose with a slam at Romney’s Mormon origins while answering a question about GOP outreach to Hispanics:

While discussing swing states, Schweitzer said Romney would have a “tall order to position Hispanics to vote for him,” and I replied that was mildly ironic since Mitt’s father was born in Mexico, giving the clan a nominal claim to being Hispanic. Schweitzer replied that it is “kinda ironic given that his family came from a polygamy commune in Mexico, but then he’d have to talk about his family coming from a polygamy commune in Mexico, given the gender discrepancy.” Women, he said, are “not great fans of polygamy, 86 percent were not great fans of polygamy. I am not alleging by any stretch that Romney is a polygamist and approves of [the] polygamy lifestyle, but his father was born into [a] polygamy commune in Mexico.”

As the Beast pointed out, both Romney’s parents and grandparents were monogamous, so tying him to the polygamous practices of his great-grandparents is a nasty piece of business and no more relevant to the 2012 campaign than an investigation into the marital practices of President Obama’s ancestors in Kenya. Though Democrats will downplay Schweitzer as a nobody who ought not to be linked to Obama, imagine if a Republican governor of an equally obscure state were to make comments about Obama’s family tree. The furor would be tremendous, and the incident would be treated in the mainstream media as emblematic of GOP racism. Any effort to downplay rather than to vigorously condemn Schweitzer’s remarks are a sure sign that Democrats hope to profit from such slurs. So while you won’t hear any slurs against Mormons from the president or even his top attack dog Vice President Biden, there will be plenty of Democratic surrogates who will be working overtime this year to foul the political waters with slurs against Mormons.

The truth is, most Americans know little about Romney’s faith, so it is possible that many actually do associate the mainstream Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to which he belongs with popular culture attacks on his faith that often center on the tiny minority of those who do practice polygamy as in the HBO show “Big Love” or reality shows that also feature such marginal practices. The LDS Church forbade polygamy 122 years ago.

While it’s not clear just how much success these off-line attempts to delegitimize Romney will have, there’s little question that a strategy to brand Romney as “weird” has been a talking point inside some high Democratic circles since last summer. The trick will be to allow President Obama, whose supporters treated all efforts to vet his associations with radical figures as racism four years ago, to stay above the fray while others throw mud at Romney.

However, the Schweitzer comment ought to be the moment when decent people on both sides of the aisle come forward to demand that the Democrats cease trying to incite prejudice against Mormons. Religious freedom is the foundation of American democracy. The incitement of religious prejudice, no matter how coyly phrased, must be treated as sternly and with as much heat as any effort to stir up racial hatred. It is vital that this be stopped now before it takes hold and becomes integral to the discussion about the election. If it does, all Americans will be diminished.

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