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Romney and the Mormon question

Anti-Mormon prejudice clearly infects this country, leading many to ask whether Mitt Romney’s religion will be an insurmountable barrier to his presidential prospects.

Evidence of this insidious disease comes in part from its very social acceptability. Americans no longer feel free to give voice to negative feelings about blacks, Jews or Catholics. Yet the rules of polite discourse seem to be different when Mormons are the topic — and many freely express their bigotry.

Even so-called intellectuals are free and easy with such invective, making statements about Mormons they would shudder to hear about any other group. Witness Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Protestant-turned-Catholic theologian, dubbed by Time as one of the 25 most influential evangelists in America. “Anti-Catholicism is, in my judgment,” he wrote, “an unreasonable prejudice … Anxiety about the strengthening of Mormonism by virtue of there being a Mormon president is not unreasonable.”

Could anyone substitute Judaism or Catholicism for Mormonism in that last sentence without being called a bigot?
In any event, the political question remains: Will negative feelings about Mormons derail Mitt Romney’s candidacy? (Of course, there is nothing wrong with hoping Romney loses. I do. However, my desire for his ultimate defeat stems from his politics and ideology, not from his religion.)

At least seven polls over the last couple of years have asked in somewhat different ways about public willingness to support a Mormon candidate for president. The responses are remarkable for both their magnitude and their range.
On the high side, Rasmussen found 43 percent willing to push an anonymous button on their telephone signaling they would never vote for a Mormon presidential candidate.

Gallup brings up the low end, with 24 percent telling live interviewers they would not vote for “a generally qualified person for president who happened to be a Mormon.”

To be sure, there are worse sins than Mormonism in the public mind. Forty-three percent would refuse to vote for a “homosexual” and 53 percent would reject an atheist, but voters are substantially more willing to admit anti-Mormon feeling than to acknowledge unwillingness to vote for a black (5 percent) or a Hispanic (12 percent), let alone a Catholic (4 percent) or a Jew (7 percent).

Adapting a technique we pioneered for women candidates 20 years ago, Harris Interactive set up an experiment providing each half of its sample with identical descriptions of two candidates and asking for which they would vote. However, half the sample was told that one of the candidates was a Baptist, while the other half was told that same candidate was a Mormon. The margin for the Mormon candidate was 20 points less than the margin for his Baptist doppelgänger.

Yet another approach asks respondents to focus not on themselves but on friends and neighbors, a technique with some basis in social psychology. Here the results are even more dramatic, as just 36 percent to 37 percent say America is ready for a Mormon president.

With polls measuring anti-Mormon sentiment anywhere from 20 percent to 60 percent, I’m not sure whether to despair more about our prejudices or the validity of our polls. 

In July of 1958, 24 percent of respondents told Gallup they would not vote for a Catholic for president, almost identical to Gallup’s reading on Mormons today. Two years later, John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic to assume the oath of office. Within eight months, the number refusing to vote for a Catholic was cut almost in half.
Sometimes, by confronting prejudice, we can overcome it.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.