Some of us who are old enough to remember George Romney’s campaign for president in 1968 have wondered why, while the Mormonism of Romney the elder was not a minus that year, his son’s seems to be one now. As Dan Gilgoff notes in a piece for the Washington Post, a Gallup poll taken this February found that Americans are less likely to support a Mormon for president than they were in the late 1960s, even though they are now much more likely to vote for a female, black or Jewish candidate. As I have argued, a Los Angeles Times report that purported, through poll data, to quantify resistance to Mitt Romney on religious grounds was misleading. Nonetheless, I don’t dispute that, whatever its dimension, such resistance does exist and exceeds any his father may have faced.
At first blush, this suggests a rise in specifically anti-Mormon sentiment. But there’s no reason why Mormons, qua Mormons, should be any less popular (or electable) than they were 40 years ago. It’s true, as Gilgoff points out, that evangelical Protestants have become much more “politicized.” But that does not mean they have become more bigoted.
My alternative theory — that more voters now view serious religious belief as a bad thing in a candidate for high office — faces the threshold difficulty that candidates associated with other religions are not running into the kind of headwind that Romney arguably faces. However, it makes sense that prejudice against candiates with deeply held religous beliefs would initially manifest itself in problems for a candidate who belongs to a demanding church that’s outside the mainstream. In the same way, for example, one would expect an uptick in anti-Jewish sentiment (of which, to my knowledge, there’s no evidence) initially to redound mainly to the detriment of an Orthodox candidate.
There’s actually a fairly easy way to test these two theories. To the extent increased resistance to Romney on religious grounds comes from evalgelical Christians, the first explanation gains validity at the expense of the second. To the extent the resistance comes from non-believers or those who fear the influence of deeply held religious beliefs in a political context, the second explanation finds vindication.
I haven’t seen poll results that apply this test directly. However, the Los Angeles Times poll that I referred to above found far more religous-based resistance to the idea of a Mormon president among Democrats than among Republicans. Evangelical Christians are more likely to be Republicans than Democrats, and non-believers and their allies are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. Thus, it may well be that Romney’s problem has more to do with an increase in anti-religious sentiment than an increase in specifically anti-Mormon prejudice.
JOHN adds: I think you’re right, looking at the electorate as a whole. The question remains, though, why Romney hasn’t taken off among Republican voters–and I think it’s obvious, no matter how much some of us admire Romney, that he hasn’t. I hope to write about that in the next day or two.
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