Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins reports on a new study of Anti-Mormonism in America, which concludes that anti-Mormonism is on the rise within America’s secular left. Specifically, in the last five years, while aversion to voting for a Mormon candidate declined slightly among evangelicals, self-described liberals reporting a distaste for voting for a Mormon for president increased from 28% in 2007 to 43% in 2012. (Full study here). A few caveats: While reporting on this study has focused on the increasing distaste for Mormon candidates among liberals, that increase has been seen in most other groups as well. The largest jump in aversion to voting for a Mormon was reported by non-religious respondents, an increase of 19%. Political moderates also saw an increase of 10% in those reporting a discomfort in voting for a Mormon.
Still, it’s not a trivial point that American liberals are growing increasingly prejudiced against Mormon candidates. Mormons have always taken it as a given that evangelical Christians struggle to accept Mormons, resulting from longstanding doctrinal disagreements and what effectively functions as a competition for respect and converts in the religious marketplace. Liberals, on the other hand, have often cast themselves as the defenders of tolerance and pluralism in American culture, and not having a dog in the doctrinal fight, have appeared less likely to feel averse to Mormons. Whether it is a genuinely new groundswell of dislike, or just a matter of liberals catching up with the religious right now that they have reason to think about Mormons, it’s never a good thing to see large groups of Americans forging strong new lines of contempt for large identity groups.
Alex Pareene at Salon dismisses the data, arguing that the rising liberal prejudice is forgivable, since it is surely based on policy preferences, rather than outright religious hatred. That is, he speculates that liberals distrust Mormons not out of contempt for the religion, but out of justifiable discomfort with the policies supported by most Mormon politicians. As Pareene puts it, “it’s perfectly legitimate to not want to vote for candidates of a certain religion if that religion dictates beliefs that are repellant to you.” Which is exactly how huge swaths of people always convince themselves to turn against huge swaths of other people– by generalizing and excusing themselves from the duty to distinguish between individuals in a given group. For example, does Pareene know Jon Huntsman’s position on gay rights? He might be surprised to discover that Huntsman is a supporter of civil unions. Though Pareene points out Harry Reid’s opposition to abortion, he fails to mention that myriad ways in which Reid differs from Romney on matters of policy, including, again, on gay rights, which appears to be a significant concern for Pareene.
It’s unsettling to hear liberals (like those in the study, and Pareene himself) justify dismissal of a massive group of people based on what one beleives they generally must think. What would be the reaction if someone rationalized a blanket refusal to vote for black candidates by noting– truthfully– that black candidates are generally politically liberal? Isn’t that a ridiculous position to hold in modern America? Why would Pareene think that broad generalizations regarding other identity groups are any more palatable? To know the views of a black candidate, or a Jewish one, or a female one, we expect people to learn about the person. To know the views of a Mormon candidate, it is enough to know that he is Mormon, nothing more. This is not okay.
A very interesting case study worked itself out in Southern Utah this week, in connection with marginal Republican presidential candidate Fred Karger, a gay man who is running explicitly as a way to force Mitt Romney to face up to gay issues. Karger visited Utah on a campaign swing, and spent several days here meeting with Republican party officials, including Washington County Republican Party Chair Willie Billings, whom Karger said was “welcoming,” and “friendly.” However, Billings’ wife appears to be a different ball of wax. She threw away some of the campaign paraphrenalia Karger had given her husband, and sent a nasty email to Karger, calling him a “radical idiot” and exulting that he “can’t procreate.” (Interestingly, although the story mentions four full days of meetings with Utah party leaders, and a “welcoming” exchange with Chairman Billings, the headline reads “Gay Republican presidential candidate Fred Karger gets a rough welcome in Southern Utah.” So one nasty email from a single bigoted private citizen outweighs four days of pleasant interaction with party officials to turn the entire visit “rough.”)
Now here’s the interesting part. Instead of blowing off the nasty email (something that every candidate in the world deals with, since every candidate in the world runs across a few crazy or mean-spirited people), here’s Karger’s reaction. “This is what the Mormon church preaches to its members. This is not some isolated woman in Utah.” Karger has decided that that awful interaction represents all Mormons, that one spiteful, ugly email can be extrapolated to mean that Mormons just hate gays. No, Mr. Karger, bigotry and mean-spiritedness are bigotry and mean-spiritedness, even in Utah. It is supremely ironic that a man who has given so much to help people understand that gay people are individuals, not just members of a group, has no ability to give the same benefit of the doubt to another group. Fred Karger probably wants to be viewed as an individual, rather than as some avatar of “American gays.” Mormons would like the same courtesy.