Following hard on the heels of a prominent Texas pastor’s Rick Perry supporting declaration that Mormonism is a cult, James Fallows over at The Atlantic was compelled to issue his own declaration: “To be against Mitt Romney (or Jon Huntsman or Harry Reid or Orrin Hatch) because of his religion is just plain bigotry.” Not to be outdone by a liberal, conservatives declared that anti-Mormonism is itself a cult.
Tossing around the word “cult” advances these issues not a whit. It signifies nothing other than one’s opposition to other or outsider beliefs. But what about Fallow’s assertion of bigotry? Casting aspersions of this sort requires substantial justification. If someone wouldn’t vote for Romney because he is Mormon, is that person a bigot?
Merriam-Webster defines a bigot as: “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.”
Fallows justifies his claim that being against Romney because of his religion is bigotry by asserting, as if it were self evident, that it also would be bigoted “to oppose Barack Obama because of his race or Joe Lieberman because of his faith or Hillary Clinton or Michele Bachmann because of their gender or Mario Rubio or Nikki Haley because of their ethnicity.”
For Fallows’ bigotry conclusion to follow from his premise, race, gender and ethnicity must occupy the same conceptual space as religion. They must be the same or roughly equivalent. They aren’t.
What is called “race” is a social construction; it is not a biological classification. This social construction is built around variation in skin color. People are born with more or less pigmentation in their skin. Being prejudiced against someone because of skin pigmentation is irrational and bigoted. Skin pigmentation says nothing about a person’s thinking.
Likewise, people are born gendered. Being prejudiced against someone because they are male or female is irrational and bigoted. Gender says nothing about a person’s thinking.
Though less clear (because “ethnicity” is often jumbled and socially constructed), people are perceived as being ethnic simply by being born in a particular place. Being prejudiced against someone because of “ethnicity” is irrational and bigoted. Ethnicity says nothing about a person’s thinking.
But what about religion? People aren’t born religious. Religion is a choice (even if that choice is never exercised). Because religion can be chosen, it can be changed. Religion says something about a person’s thinking.
Religion is not like “race” or gender or “ethnicity”: none of these are matters of choice. They can’t be changed in the way that religion can be changed. Another way of saying this is that “race,” gender, and “ethnicity” are (largely) immutable characteristics; religion is a mutable choice.
With these distinctions in mind, we can ask whether it is bigoted to be against Romney (or any other political candidate) because of his or her religion. I suppose if the answer comes from inside religion — you wouldn’t vote for Romney because you have particular religious beliefs and Romney has different beliefs — a case for bigotry can be made. But if the answer comes from outside religion — you wouldn’t vote for Romney because he believes in the fantastic and absurd — it isn’t bigotry.
In 2006, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg laid out the non-bigoted case for refusing to vote for Romney (or any other candidate) because of religion:
Not applying a religious test for public office, means that people of all faiths are allowed to run—not that views about God, creation, and the moral order are inadmissible for political debate. In George W. Bush’s case, the public paid far too little attention to the role of religion in his thinking. Many voters failed to appreciate that while Bush’s religious beliefs may be moderate Methodist ones, he was someone who relied on his faith immoderately, as an alternative to rational understanding of complex issues. Nor is it chauvinistic to say that certain religious views should be deal breakers in and of themselves.
There are millions of religious Americans who would never vote for an atheist for president, because they believe that faith is necessary to lead the country. Others, myself included, would not, under most imaginable circumstances, vote for a fanatic or fundamentalist—a Hassidic Jew who regards Rabbi Menachem Schneerson as the Messiah, a Christian literalist who thinks that the Earth is less than 7,000 years old, or a Scientologist who thinks it is haunted by the souls of space aliens sent by the evil lord Xenu.
Such views are disqualifying because they’re dogmatic, irrational, and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.
By the same token, I wouldn’t vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism. The LDS church holds that Joseph Smith, directed by the angel Moroni, unearthed a book of golden plates buried in a hillside in Western New York in 1827. The plates were inscribed in “reformed” Egyptian hieroglyphics—a nonexistent version of the ancient language that had yet to be decoded.
If you don’t know the story, it’s worth spending some time with Fawn Brodie’s wonderful biography No Man Knows My History. Smith was able to dictate his “translation” of the Book of Mormon first by looking through diamond-encrusted decoder glasses and then by burying his face in a hat with a brown rock at the bottom of it. He was an obvious con man.
Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don’t want him running the country.
Weisberg and those who think as he does aren’t bigots.