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Why is it OK to to be prejudiced against Mormons?

You can’t be openly racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic in America. But anti-Mormon? Go for it. Maybe a White House run by Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman will shine enough light on actual Mormons to make us put aside the fears and fantasies about them.

By Jonathan Zimmerman / October 18, 2011

New York

I have a dear friend who grew up in Utah and teaches at a major east coast university. When she first arrived at her job, a colleague asked her if she was a Mormon. She said yes.

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“But you don’t really believe that stuff, right?” the colleague said.

Imagine if my friend were Muslim or Jewish. In the liberal confines of academia, no one would ever inquire if she “really” believed in her religion: The very question would be offensive, because it implies that the religion is somehow unbelievable. But my friend is a Mormon, so people feel free to ask.

And that tells you all you need to know about anti-Mormonism in America right now: It’s a prejudice you can get away with. You can’t be openly racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic. But anti-Mormon? Go for it.

It’s thoroughly bipartisan, too. Amid the recent controversy over Republican attacks on GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, it would be easy to conclude that conservatives have a monopoly on anti-Mormon bigotry. But it would also be wrong.

If anything, liberals are more prejudiced against Mormons than conservatives are. In a poll last June by the Pew Research Center, for example, 31 percent of Democrats – as compared to 23 percent of Republicans – said they’d be less likely to support a presidential candidate if he were Mormon. And in a Gallup survey taken the same month, 27 percent of Democrats – as opposed to 18 percent of Republicans – said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon for president.

To put these numbers in perspective, only three percent of respondents in the Pew survey said they’d be less likely to vote for a candidate if he were African-American. The real fraction of racists is probably much higher than that, sociologists say, because respondents are afraid to reveal anti-black biases. But they’re not nearly as reticent to express prejudice against Mormons. And that, too, speaks volumes about which kinds of intolerance our society is willing to tolerate.


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