By Richard Larsen
Published – Idaho State Journal, 02/17/08
At the beginning of the current presidential election cycle, political circles were abuzz over whether the country was ready for a woman or a black president. With the focus on sexism and racism, an even greater character flaw in America was somewhat overlooked. That flaw loomed larger and larger until the withdrawal of Mitt Romney from the presidential race last week.
A poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal last month was revealing. Respondents indicated that sexism and racism in presidential politics is negligible and that far more Americans say they'd never vote for an Evangelical Christian or a Mormon than those who admitted they wouldn't choose a woman or an African-American. Only 7% indicated they were “very uncomfortable” with voting for a woman for President and 15% indicated they had “some reservations.”
Racism in presidential politics faired even better. The same poll indicated that only 4% were “very uncomfortable” and 13% had “some reservations” about an African-American candidate.
Now compare that with religious bigotry and it should be downright embarrassing. The poll asked about Evangelical Christians and 20% were “very uncomfortable” and 25% had “some reservations.”
Even starker is the fact that 21% said they were “very uncomfortable” and 29% had “some reservations” about an LDS (Mormon) presidential candidate. That’s 50% who would likely not vote for a Mormon for president. To put that in perspective, a Zogby poll last month showed 50% reluctance to vote for an atheist and a poll last year, showed only 40% would have reservations in voting for a Muslim.
While sexism and racism in politics are obviously waning, religious bigotry seems to be alive and well. It appears religious bigotry is not a monopoly of the right or the left, for there’s more than enough to go around on both sides. Leftists are leery of an Evangelical for President, while they’re more likely to support an atheist or a Muslim. Evangelicals are wary of a Mormon to the same extent as a Muslim or an atheist.
According to Democratic pollster Peter Hart, “The Mormon religion was the silent factor in a lot of the decision making by evangelicals and others,” as far as the Romney campaign was concerned. They ran into “a religious bias head wind,” he said.
Armand Mauss, a sociologist who has written extensively about religious culture, said last week, “I don't think that any of us had any idea how much anti-Mormon stuff was out there. The Romney campaign has shown us the equivalent of anti-Semitism still out there.”
Bigotry ran like a tsunami through the political punditry over a TV commercial that lit a bookshelf to appear as a cross in December. Mike Huckabees’ Merry Christmas ad was denounced for the subliminal appearance of the cross in the background while there was no similar denunciation of the “subliminal” messaging of a Hillary Clinton commercial surrounded by black children. It would appear that subliminal messaging is fine as long as it isn’t of a religious nature.
For some reason, American “tolerance” seems to be heavily qualified. It is to be applied to issues of sex, race, and sexual orientation, and even some religions, like Islam. But it is not to be applied to Christians.
Actually, tolerance is the wrong word to use, for inherent in that word is an air of superiority. Perhaps a more appropriate term would be mutual respect, which implies a greater equanimity and parity between perspectives.
This religious intolerance may have a theological basis for many. According to Richard Mohr “Religious belief is a fine guide around which a person might organize his own life, but an awful instrument around which to organize someone else’s life.” Ignorance does more to fan the flames of religious bigotry and perhaps anything else.
Our political history is replete with examples of religious bigotry, even beyond John Kennedy’s Catholic faith in the 1960 election. In 1928, Al Smith ran against Herbert Hoover and was pilloried for his Catholic faith and denounced as anti-democratic, monarchical, and “not in tune with American institutions.”
Senator Joseph Lieberman, the courageous and principled Senator from Connecticut was a Vice Presidential nominee in 2000, and a candidate for President in 2004. He experienced the equivalent of a colonoscopy by the main-stream media about his Jewish faith. Benjamin Disraeli, the first and only Jewish Prime Minister of England famously stated once, “The Jews are a nervous people. Nineteen centuries of Christian love have taken a toll.”
We seem to be going the wrong direction in this regard. Back in 1967 when Romney’s father, George, ran for President, a poll indicated that only 17% would not vote for a Mormon.
We have the freedom to be bigots, like we have the freedom to be jerks. But we must ask ourselves if it is moral. As a society, we’ve made progress with race and sex. It’s time to grow up in our mutual respect of other religions.