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.

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.

“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.

The conservative brand of anti-Mormonism often takes an openly theological form. Consider Southern Baptist minister Robert Jeffress, who recently introduced his friend Rick Perry to the conservative Values Voter Summit as “a genuine follower of Jesus Christ.” The comment was a backhanded swipe at Mr. Romney’s religion, implying that Mormons aren’t really Christians at all.

And later that day, in a discussion with reporters, Mr. Jeffress made it explicit. Mormonism, he said, was a “cult.” And come election time, Jeffress added, every born-again Christian “ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian” – that is, a Perry over a Romney. Never mind that the Constitution – which conservatives like Jeffress also revere – explicitly bars any “religious test” for public office.

Gleeful at the prospect of a GOP civil war, liberal commentators were quick to condemn the obvious bigotry in Jeffress’s remarks. But as my Utah friend’s experience at a resolutely liberal university illustrates, the left harbors its own deep prejudices and double standards about Mormons as well.

Consider the award-winning Broadway show “The Book of Mormon,” which depicts Mormon missionaries as naïve and sexually repressed interlopers in Africa. Again, try to imagine a hit play that portrayed Jews or Muslims in such an unflattering light, or that satirized their sacred texts in its title. A Broadway hit called “The Talmud” or “The Koran,” embraced by New York’s liberal glitterati? Not going to happen.

Or take Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book, “Under the Banner of Heaven,” which focused upon polygamy and murder in a breakaway Mormon sect. Can we really believe that the book’s success – especially among liberals – has nothing to do with their anti-Mormon prejudice?

And the prejudice goes way back, to the founding of Mormonism and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint itself. After publishing the real “Book of Mormon,” based on the revelations inscribed on golden plates that he allegedly unearthed in Western New York, Joseph Smith was forced to flee to Ohio. After a mob tarred and feathered him, Smith took his flock to Missouri.

But the state’s governor issued an “order of extermination” – yes, it was really called that – against the Mormons, whose property was confiscated or destroyed. So they fled again, across the Mississippi River to Nauvoo, Illinois. Smith was then killed in jail by a mob in nearby Carthage, Ill. in 1844.

Brigham Young then led the Mormons west, to a place where he thought no one would bother them: The Great Salt Basin. He was wrong. In 1857, President James Buchanan declared the Utah territory “in rebellion” and sent federal troops to remove Young as governor.

The problem was the Mormons’ practice of “plural marriage” or polygamy, which was never as dominant as critics said: By most estimates, between 20 and 30 percent of Mormon families were polygamous. And the church officially renounced the practice in 1890, paving the way for Utah’s statehood.

But Americans won’t let the Mormons forget it. When pollsters ask American evangelical Protestants to describe Mormons in a single word, the most common answer is still “polygamy.” Again, though, it’s not just conservatives who trade in these stereotypes. Polygamy was the central theme of the recently concluded five-season HBO series “Big Love,” which was a big hit among the liberal cognoscenti.

No matter what our political affiliation, then, we’re still mocking Mormons. Perhaps a run for the White House by Romney – or by fellow Mormon, Jon Huntsmanwill shine enough light on actual Mormons to make us put aside the fears and fantasies about them.

They really do believe that stuff, you know. And it’s OK.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”

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