Anti-Mormonism as Bigotry

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.

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5 thoughts on “Anti-Mormonism as Bigotry

  1. M Pearlstein

    ***What is called “race” is a social construction; it is not a biological classification. ***

    In that case you could argue that sub species and races in other species are simply social constructions. Race of course simply reflects major geographical ancestry. It is reflected in various morphological features which forensic anthropologists can identify with high confidence. Also, if you aggregate individual dna you genetic clusters which reflect the major population groups/races.

  2. Cris Post author

    Let’s take these one at a time.

    What are sometimes classified as biological sub-species are usually just minor geographic or pelagic variants of a single species. Many biologists recognize that sub-specific designations are simply handy markers or ways to refer to populations that might aid in their conservation. A sub-specific designation has little or no biological meaning or import.

    Something like a century ago, some biologists referred to same species “varieties” as races. I’m not aware of anyone who does so today. It is an antiquated term that is no longer in use.

    The bottom line here is that even species designations are problematic because we know that many species, which aren’t supposed to be capable of interbreeding, do in fact or can in fact interbreed.

    With all this in mind, “race” applied to humans signifies almost nothing biologically. If we were to grade people according to amount of pigmentation around the world on a continuous basis, we would have quite the palette. “Race” doesn’t even come close to capturing this variety.

    The bigger question is this: it makes just as much — or little — sense to grade people according to some other arbitrary and outward feature: such as the “tall” race or the “short” race or the “squat” race or the “blonde” race or the “blue eye” race. These kinds of classifications say nothing about human biological variation in all its richness and variety.

    One might think that we have moved beyond crude “racial” classifications devised by non-scientific German cranks who lived in the late 1700s. We have, after all, learned a great deal over the last 200 or more years.

  3. M Pearlstein

    ***ome other arbitrary and outward feature: such as the “tall” race or the “short” race or the “squat” race or the “blonde” race or the “blue eye” race. These kinds of classifications say nothing about human biological variation in all its richness and variety.***

    Sure, but as I said above – those morphological features reflect geographic ancestry. So height or eye colour alone wouldn’t be particularly informative in this respect. As Neil Risch notes in the article above:

    ” The logical flaw in this argument is the assumption that the blacks and whites in the referenced study differ only in skin pigment. Racial categorizations have never been based on skin pigment, but on indigenous continent of origin. For example, none of the population genetic studies cited above, including the study of Wilson et al. [2], used skin pigment of the study subjects, or genetic loci related to skin pigment, as predictive variables. Yet the various racial groups were easily distinguishable on the basis of even a modest number of random genetic markers; furthermore, categorization is extremely resistant to variation according to the type of markers used (for example, RFLPs, microsatellites or SNPs).”

    And as Risch points out, the fact that you get these statistical clusters, is why race or ethnicity is a useful information for pharmaceutical research and in terms of treatment options for patients. As Risch notes:

    “The existence of such intermediate groups should not, however, overshadow the fact that the greatest genetic structure that exists in the human population occurs at the racial level. ”

    I agree with you that doesn’t inform you of their way of thinking, but racial groups do have biological significance in terms of medicine.

  4. Cris Post author

    I am quite familiar not only with the medical literature on “race” but also with the much larger anthropological and other literature which explains why medicine might find this kind of shorthand of useful for some limited kinds of diagnosis and/or treatment. I can cite at least a hundred articles which contradict this one, or explain why it is flawed or incomplete or misguided.

    Continent of origin and geography aren’t precise enough to tell us anything. You can find more genetic variation on the African continent than anywhere else in the world; almost none of that variation involves skin color.

    This is a blog about religion and related topics. If you wish to debate “race” it will have to be somewhere else.

  5. Juggernaut Nihilism

    I once heard comedian Joe Rogan do a great bit (totally unfit for these august pages, so feel free to ignore or delete it) about how the reason Mormons are so against homosexuals is because deep down, there is a powerful anxiety that if someone can convince you that Joseph Smith found some golden plates detailing the visits of Jesus to the New World, then they could probably also convince you to suck a dick.

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