Anti-Mormon Attacks: It's Not Personal, Mitt. It's Just Politics

While Mormons have ascended into Congress and top state positions, the uneasiness many Americans feel about them is magnified when it comes to the nation's highest office.
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Democrats welcomed Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith's backing in Missouri, and continued to seek his political blessing when he led the new movement to Illinois.

Then Smith decided to run for president.

It was one of the last in a series of fateful decisions about the personal power he sought that proved too much for many of his neighbors or former political allies to accept. Not long after, on June 27, 1844, he was killed by a mob in Carthage, Ill.

Now, in his run for the presidency, another Mormon, the more mild-mannered Mitt Romney, is asking voters to judge him on his individual qualifications, and not as a representative of an entire faith -- just as the Catholic John F. Kennedy did in his groundbreaking run five decades ago.

And the issue Romney is most criticized for, flip-flopping on key issues from taxes to gay rights, would seem to mitigate efforts to portray him as a puppet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But each step of the way, the former Massachusetts governor will have a lot to overcome to become the first Mormon to be elected president, say scholars studying religion and presidential politics. Those obstacles include everything from evangelical distrust in the GOP primaries to secular and liberal prejudice in the general election.

Little is off limits in American politics.

Already, the not-so-subtle intimations of GOP candidates about Romney's electability and rumblings from Democratic and liberal sources about his "weirdness" appear to many analysts to be attempts to reap political gains by exploiting anti-Mormon attitudes and fears.

Americans have been always suspicious of presidential candidates perceived to hold weak or unorthodox religious values, according to authors Corwin Smidt, Kevin den Dulk, Bryan Froehle, James Penning, Steven Monsma and Douglas Koopman in their new book, "The Disappearing God Gap? Religion in the 2008 Presidential Election."

"In fact," the researchers write, "the average voter's insistence that presidential candidates must be religious -- and religious in a mainstream way -- is something akin to what political scientists call a 'standing decision,' a nonnegotiable starting point for many voters in considering candidates for office."

The Outsiders

Members of other once-persecuted religious groups such as Jews and Catholics may have moved into the religious mainstream, but that acceptance is still denied members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the 2006 Faith Matters Survey, respondents expressed relatively warm feelings toward Jews, Catholics and Mainline Protestants. Mormons, however, stood out for their unpopularity. They ranked below evangelicals and people who are not religious, Robert Putnam and David Campbell reported in their book "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us."

And while Mormons have ascended into Congress and top state positions, the uneasiness many Americans feel about them is magnified when it comes to the nation's highest office.

In the Religion and Public Life Survey, a quarter of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who is Mormon. In a June Gallup Poll, 22 percent of Americans said they would not support a Mormon for president.

"It's because it's the presidency" that Romney's faith matters so much, Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, said in an interview. "His religion is a liability, but it will not necessarily doom him."

Not that his opponents will shy away from using Romney's religion against him.

Attacks From the Left and Right

Just how politically vulnerable he is because of his religion was indicated in a mid-November poll by the Pew Research Center. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said Mormonism is very different from their own religion, and about a quarter of respondents used negative terms such as "cult," "polygamy" or "strange" when asked to give a one-word impression of the Mormon religion.

Few analysts expect Romney's foes on either side of the political aisle to resist exploiting this perceived weakness.

GOP contenders have been criticized for what some consider their relative silence on the topic of anti-Mormonism. They also seem to introduce the subject in roundabout ways such as raising doubts about Romney's "electability" in states with large populations of evangelical Christians.

On the Democratic side, a recent article in Politico reported that President Barack Obama's aides and advisers are planning a personal assault on Romney. Part of the plan is to portray Romney as "weird" -- a word the authors said was used repeatedly by Obama's advisers in about a dozen interviews. Some analysts view the term as a subtle code word to reinforce anti-Mormon concerns.

Whether Romney wins or loses, Campbell said, one likely positive outcome is that anti-Mormon attitudes and fears will be aired and addressed, and in the long run there will be greater understanding. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may no longer seem so "foreign" to other citizens.

That may be of little consolation to Romney, however. To paraphrase the line from "The Godfather" when Al Pacino's character is contemplating a double murder, the former governor may want to keep in mind: "It's not personal, Mitt. It's strictly politics."

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

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