The political irrelevance of anti-Mormonism

The political irrelevance of anti-Mormonism August 22, 2012

Political anti-Mormonism was a real force in late nineteenth-century America.  Commentators across the country denounced Mormonism as “the octopus of our political life” and as being distinctly “un-American.”  Every level of the federal government weighed in.  The Supreme Court ruled against Mormon polygamy in the Reynolds v. U.S. decision in 1879, and Congress passed anti-polygamy legislation in 1862, 1874, 1882, and 1887, all of which was accompanied with strident anti-Mormon sentiment.  Anti-Mormonism also captivated the White House, as every president from Rutherford B. Hayes to Grover Cleveland made specific denunciations of Mormons and Mormonism, often in their annual addresses to Congress.  In his annual address in 1881, Chester Arthur noted that the expansion of Mormonism “imposes upon Congress and the Executive the duty of arraying against this barbarous system all the power which under the Constitution and the law they can wield for its destruction.”  That is what political anti-Mormonism looks like.

Unlike the late nineteenth century, anti-Mormonism—or for that matter, Mormonism—is not a relevant political category in national politics anymore, and especially not in this year’s presidential campaign.  This is not to say that Mormonism is irrelevant in politics.  Certainly it matters, especially on the state and local level in various places around the country.  Furthermore, Mormonism, and its omnipresent anti-Mormon shadow, remains a relevant cultural category; indeed, there is no doubt that we are in the midst of a periodic peak in national and even global interest in what Mormonism is, who Mormons are, and what it all means in the modern world.

But right now no serious person wants to play the anti-Mormon card as part of any substantive political discussion.  There have been multiple attempts to do so—people putting their toe in the water to test it—but it hasn’t gained traction.  A few evangelicals (most famously Robert Jeffress) played the anti-Mormon card in the primary, but ultimately it was a halfhearted attempt, since it soon became apparent that there would be no viable evangelical candidate for them to support.  Once Romney beat out his two final (Catholic) challengers, then evangelicals (including Jeffress) got into line, and since then we’ve hardly heard a whisper of anti-Mormonism from that corner.

This is not to say that conservative evangelicals all of a sudden warmed up to Mormonism, or even to Romney.  But since Jerry Falwell organized the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, politically inclined evangelicals have demonstrated a pragmatic willingness to check their theology at the door and support the person they see as the candidate who embraces their values if not their faith.  Politics is the realm of Machiavelli, not Jesus, and so political evangelicals have learned that the enemy of their enemy is their friend.  And it seems clear that Republican-voting evangelicals dislike Barack Obama more than they dislike Mormons.

I must admit being a bit surprised that we haven’t heard more political anti-Mormonism from the left, especially from secular liberals.  But here too I think their relative silence is not because of any particular affection for Mormons or Mormonism, but rather some tested anti-Mormonism as a political category and it didn’t stick.  We all saw the Lawrence O’Donnell clip, which was about as explicit as it gets, but there was immediate blowback, and it is remembered more as an example of yellow journalism than an insightful bit of political analysis.  Last summer Obama advisor David Axelrod made it clear that anyone portraying Romney as “weird”—which many saw as code language for Mormon—would be fired.  Some of this code language was resurrected this spring, when Axelrod said that they would go after what he called Romney’s “penchant for secrecy.”  He thought this would play well with voters, who would wonder, “Who is this guy?  What does he stand for?  What does he believe?  What do we know about him?”  There’s a whiff of anti-Mormonism from this line of attack, since polls have regularly shown that the general public feels like they don’t really understand who Mormons are and what they believe, and that they think that Mormons are secretive (which doesn’t play well in an age of supposed transparency).

However, the Obama campaign seems content (and intent) on portraying Romney as the fat cat, the CEO, the job outsourcer, the tax-dodger, the Medicare-destroyer, the out-of-touch member and servant of the 1%.  I believe they would resort to anti-Mormonism, explicit or implicit, if it would help them—I just think their calculation after floating a few trial balloons is that it won’t.  In short, anti-Mormonism is irrelevant as a political category in 2012.  (I’m not alone in feeling this way; columnist Doyle McManus has made a similar point.)

A counterargument could be mounted based on a recent Gallup poll reporting that 18% of Americans “wouldn’t vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate in their political party who is Mormon,” a figure that is essentially unchanged from the time of George Romney.  1 in 5 voters is not an insignificant number, but I must admit being somewhat dubious about how important the number is, or at least what it really tells us.  First of all, negativity toward a Mormon candidate is significantly affected by party affiliation:  it “increases from 10 percent among Republicans to 18 percent among Independents to 24 percent among Democrats.”  I suspect that for many of those polled, a question in June 2012 about a generic Mormon candidate in their minds turned into a referendum on Mitt Romney.  Furthermore, the widespread assumption that a Mormon politician will probably be a conservative means that it’s only natural that Democrats would be less likely to vote for one.

No doubt there may be an actual anti-Mormon bias among at least some voters, but I would argue that the 18% number actually represents primarily an anti-Romney sentiment on the one hand and an anti-religion sentiment on the other.  Both of these might play into a general antipathy toward a Mormon candidate, but neither necessarily reveals anti-Mormonism proper to be a salient political category.

With any luck, we’ll make it through the next 11 weeks with it staying that way.

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