1:56 PM EDT, October 10, 2011
If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be Mormon, would you vote for that person?
Earlier this year, Gallup pollsters asked that exact question, and 76 percent of those who responded said yes, they would. That may sound like the American people are ready for a president who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but maybe not.
In the same poll, the public was given other hypothetical candidates: Would you vote for a black, Catholic, Baptist, Jew or Hispanic? All scored better than Mormon. Only two categories fared worse — gay or lesbian (67 percent would support) and atheist (49 percent).
This public antipathy toward those of the Mormon faith is built on a lot of ignorance and misinformation. The recent comments by a Dallas evangelical minister and supporter of Texas Gov. Rick Perry for president who wrongly, but repeatedly, labeled Mormonism a cult at a conference in Washington, D.C. would seem to prove the point.
That not one but two Republican candidates — Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman — are Mormon and the nation has not yet had a serious public conversation about their faith is absurd. Americans used to feel this same way about Catholicism, too, until John F. Kennedy was elected president.
Anti-Mormon concerns are not only fueled by Mr. Romney's front-runner status but by the concerns of evangelical Perry supporters and other conservatives that the former Massachusetts governor does not share their values. While the other candidates aren't attacking the Mormon church, most aren't offering much of a defense of their colleagues' faith either.
Certainly, there are more pressing concerns to be discussed in the race — unemployment, the moribund economy, conflicts overseas — but when major candidates for president are regarded as unacceptable by one-quarter of the population for their religious beliefs, that's a legitimate issue, too.
Nor can it be a surprise to those running to be the GOP's nominee that the public is interested in the particulars of their religious faith. In 2008, Republicans were intrigued not only by Barack Obama's religious beliefs but by the particulars of the sermons given by his church's pastor.
What Mr. Perry and others should be doing is standing up for Mormonism and rightly instructing their supporters that it's a form of Christianity that is shared by 14 million people worldwide, including 6 million in the United States. That's no cult.
Polygamy was renounced by the church more than a century ago, a point the church felt obligated to make once again in a recent advertising campaign. But the Mormons are up against a lot of popular culture, including the Tony-winning musical "Book of Mormon" on Broadway, which portrays Mormon missionaries as well meaning but deluded, and an HBO series, "Big Love," which tells the story of a polygamous family.
One can certainly empathize with Mr. Romney's political situation. Obviously, neither he nor Mr. Huntsman wishes to alienate voters by acting as missionaries for a religion that generates this much antipathy. But some people will continue to fear those things they do not know much about, and it therefore falls on the candidates to help educate the electorate. Mr. Romney attempted to do that in a speech in 2008, but the effort was obviously insufficient.
The issue is not confined to Republicans. The same Gallup poll revealed the groups that had the hardest time voting for a Mormon president — people who didn't attend college, who are under age 34, who live in the Midwest and who are registered asDemocrats.
Perhaps the best response we've heard from the Republican field to the controversy stirred up Friday was from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. During an appearance on "Face the Nation," he called the cult remark by Pastor Robert Jeffress "unwise and inappropriate." Mr. Gingrich was right but should have gone further.
The public would never for one minute accept this kind of anti-Mormon rhetoric if the target had been a Jew, a Catholic, a Baptist, a Lutheran or adherent of most any other major faith. The episode ought to be identified for what it is, religious bigotry, and roundly condemned.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun