The front page of the Washington Post today says "Romney pushes aside Mormonism question." (The web version of the story has a different headline.) There is coverage all over the place about this weekend's Values Voters Summit, at which the Texas preacher Robert Jeffress, who introduced and endorsed Rick Perry, repeated his view that Mormonism is a cult, that Mormons are not Christians, and that voting for a Mormon like Mitt Romney "would give credibility to a cult."
This summer the New York Times ran an online debate on whether "Republicans Are Ready Now for a Mormon President." It was kicked off this way:
When Mitt Romney ran in the G.O.P. presidential primaries in 2008, his religion caused discomfort among some conservative voters who objected to the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The ensuing Times discussion was intelligent, and I do understand the political handicapping aspect of stories about the "Mormon angle." It's like asking three years ago whether America was "ready" for a black president. Or whether we're "ready" for a Hispanic, female, Jewish, Asian, Muslim, atheist, gay, unmarried, overweight, etc President.
But it's worth saying something that often gets skipped past in the political handicapping. To be against Mitt Romney (or Jon Huntsman or Harry Reid or Orrin Hatch) because of his religion is just plain bigotry. Exactly as it would have been to oppose Barack Obama because of his race or Joe Lieberman because of his faith or Hillary Clinton or Michele Bachmann because of their gender or Mario Rubio or Nikki Haley because of their ethnicity. I also think that if we were reading handicapping stories about any of those other situations, we'd be getting frequent reminders that what we were talking about was, in the end, simple prejudice.
I am no big fan of Mitt Romney's. I do understand that voters assess a whole suite of traits, including race and gender and class background and religion and family status, in deciding whether or not they are comfortable with a candidate.
But for people to come out and say that they won't back a candidate because he's Mormon and therefore a "cult" member is no better than saying "I'd never trust a Jew" or "a black could never do the job" or "women should stay in their place" or "Latinos? Let 'em go back home." Maybe it makes things more "honest" for people to be open about their anti-Mormonism and discreet about other prejudices. The only two biases people aren't embarrassed expressing publicly are anti-Southern (the "Bubba factor") and anti-Mormon. Still, it's bigotry.
For odd reasons I've spent a lot of time in Mormon-rich environments, from my home town, which had a large Mormon presence; to time overseas, where they're over-represented among expat Americans because of mission assignments and language skills; to reporting on defense and security issues. I respect many social-correlates of Mormon practices, including the mission experience. I disagree with most of the LDS church's political stances, and I hated the role it played in the California Prop 8 struggle last year. But to be against candidates because of their religion? That should be seen as bigot talk -- yes, even when applied to Mormons.
(By the way: while not supporting Romney on the issues, I admire his calm about this kind of attack. As I greatly admired Herman Cain's self-possession and self-control during Lawrence O'Donnell's inexplicable baiting of him for what he did or didn't do in the civil rights movement and during the Vietnam era.)