Polarized

How opinions unite and divide us

Would you vote for a Mormon?

Americans’ religious intolerance pervasive despite ideals, ignorance

Every time a candidate for major political office breaks the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” mold of being a middle-aged, Protestant, white male, mass media have a field day discussing public’s supposed views of that candidate and what their election might mean for some core political ideal. With Mitt Romney – as a Mormon, breaking just one of the archetypical features of the American politician – closer to the White House than any previous Latter Day Saint, these questions seem to be popping up again.

Among questions raised about candidates’ traits, religion seems to present a particularly powerful concern for the televised punditry. Would you vote for a Mormon for the Presidency? And will other Americans?

A Mormon as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee is intriguing given that Mormonism is the only religion to have been singled out as undesirable in a GOP Platform (in 1856). Indeed, it is historically quite interesting to see that a Mormon is now one election short of the Presidency when only 100 years ago a Mormon Senator, Reed Smoot, was initially denied access to his seat in Washington based solely upon his religion. But times have changed: Mormon politicians are now commonplace in American politics, no longer resigned to run only the unrecognized, 19th century U.S. territory called Deseret.

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One might read that history as a sign that Americans’ have done well by constitutional commitments to religious liberty, ending state-sanctioned anti-Mormon prejudice as has occurred Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, and others. Yet, public attitudes toward Mormons – and indeed toward many religious groups – are heavily imbued with prejudice. Opinions toward candidates from different religious traditions and opinions toward the religions themselves are quite divisive.

Gallup, for example, reported this week that a solid 18% of the public would not vote for a “well-qualified” candidate from their own party if that candidate happened to be a Mormon (a number consistent with trends since the question was first asked in implicit reference to the presidential ambitions of Romney’s father in the 1960’s). Yet the same poll shows that only 57% of the public can identify Romney as a Mormon (33% simply don’t know, while the remainder guessed incorrectly). The report suggests that greater attention paid to his religion might be harmful: 29% of those who are unfamiliar with Romney’s religion say they wouldn’t support a Mormon candidate.

Why do so many Americans have concerns about a Mormon candidate? Questions about tolerance of minority groups has been a long-standing question for political scientists and sociologists. A classic study of tolerance (gated, ungated) shows that while people generally express high degrees of tolerance for religious and political speech, behavior, and practices, when individuals are asked to think about particular groups that they dislike, people are exceptionally intolerant. Religious groups – especially atheists – hold particularly wide and severe public disdain. Another Gallup report released this week suggests that whatever disadvantage Romney’s religion might bring is pittance compared to the position of other religious groups. Only 58% of the public reports being willing to support a well-qualified Muslim candidate for President and even less (54%) report willingness to vote for a well-qualified atheist. This despite the fact that about 10% of the public qualify as atheists, while only 2% identify as Mormon.

So, while the public is generally tolerant of various religious groups, they seem willing to withhold rights (e.g., free speech, exercise of religion, positions of elected office) from particular groups they dislike. For Mormons, this dislike might readily be attributed to the public’s ignorance of the Mormon faith.

Data released in January by the Pew Research Center indicate that only half of the American public even know that Mormons are a Christian denomination. Mormons, however, actually appear to be the most knowledgeable (along with atheists) about Christianity, according to another Pew survey (from 2010). Mormons and atheists, despite being Americans’ least liked religious groups, are actually the most knowledgeable about religion.

(For those who feel uninformed or want to learn a little bit more about Mormons, in 2007 Frontline released a well-executed special about Mormons, which is available for free viewing online. Pew released a report in January that documents the political views of Mormons, which is also worth a look.)

Romney, like all Mormons, therefore appears to be at an electoral disadvantage that is driven largely by ignorance-laden prejudicial attitudes. That one-fifth of the public believes his religion to be important might also be tied to perceptions (reported during his previous presidential bid in 2008) that Romney is very religious, while other candidates – including Barack Obama – are perceived as only somewhat religious.

Pew reported in March that an all-time high of 38% of the public believe politicians too often make public expressions of faith.

This suggests that just as opinions of religious minorities remain quite prejudicial, the public as a whole is largely moving away from viewing religion as an important part of everyday politics. The majority of Americans, according to the March Pew report, believe churches should stay out of politics.

Whether Americans’ will widely support Romney in November will, only in part, be influenced by the publics’ views of his religion and his personal religiosity. Presidential elections are never determined by religion (but instead by economic conditions), so how much religion matters is a largely irrelevant question. But, the pattern of negativity toward Mormons (and atheists and Muslims), along with public sentiment turning against a political role for religion, and a general ignorance of religion make for an intriguing moment for public opinion. The publics’ views as a whole are simply an aggregation of individual perspectives: at the moment, religion (and particular religions) are viewed in quite diverse ways by different segments of the public. This diversity means that no soundbite explanation about religion will be useful for understanding its role in the 2012 election or politics more broadly.

Thomas J. Leeper is a Ph.D. candidate in political science and a graduate fellow of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

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