Religious discrimination may play a larger role than sexism, racism in 2008

The 2008 presidential contest is shaping up to be an interesting indicator of how far Americans have progressed on matters of racial and gender-based discrimination.

Interestingly, it appears that Barrack Obama’s blackness and Hillary Clinton’s womanhood won’t present a major challenge for either candidate. Apparently, at least among Democratic voters, being black or a woman isn’t such a big deal (maybe consider switching parties, Condoleezza Rice). In fact, the candidate who stands to face the most prejudice at the ballot is a clean-cut white Republican from Michigan. Why? Because he’s a Mormon.

Religion has always been a key issue in U.S. presidential politics. Thomas Jefferson was called an atheist by his detractors – an outrageous charge then and now – and John Kennedy had to explain to a gathering of Protestant ministers that “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens to be Catholic… I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

This worked well enough for JFK but will Romney, the Republican governor of the very blue state of Massachusetts, prove able to similarly explain away his much-less mainstream religion along with all the skeletons in its closet? As it stands, the public’s understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is formed less by the polite, smart young men who come knocking on our doors than by HBO’s Big Love about a family of polygamists. While the Mormon church, which banned polygamy in 1890 in exchange for Utah’s statehood, insisted a disclaimer be aired along with the program, it may face a deeper threat from less fictional avenues. It was only months ago that Warren Jeffs was arrested for arranging the marriages of 14-year-olds within his ultra-orthodox Mormon sect, following full coverage on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, of course.

In the meantime, as the race for the White House unfolds, expect to learn much more about Mormonism from the source that never ceases to confuse and distort – the media. They are already lining up to find out if Romney wears the traditional Mormon undergarment beneath his politician’s suits. Meanwhile, the robots at Fox News are still trying to figure out how to play this one. “He’s a Republican, but not a real Christian. Does not compute.”

In fact, Romney will most likely face his greatest challenge attempting to win over the traditional Republican base of Evangelical conservatives, many of whom don’t even consider Mormons to be Christians. According to them, Mormon dogma, including its contention that Jesus traveled to Missouri at one point, are simply too far-fetched.

This from people who insist that God created the Earth in six days and propose intelligent design as an “alternative theory” to established scientific fact. Both have seen their sacred doctrines shot to ribbons by science, pragmatism and time.

What’s more, Romney enjoys pointing out that, despite his religion’s polygamist past, he has been married to the same woman for 37 years in contrast to his leading Republican opponents who average 2.7 divorces each. Family values indeed.

From a non-religious perspective, the relative legitimacy of Mormonism and mainstream Protestant denominations seems altogether irrelevant. The only thing that separates a cult from a religion is a couple thousand years.

At this point it remains unclear whether Americans will prove to be less progressive on religious freedom than they are in the realms of race and gender. However, it would not be the first time Mormons faced suspicion while reaching for the upper rungs of the American political ladder.

In 1844, Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the Church of Latter Day Saints, announced a bid for the White House while his followers were still a band of outcasts in Illinois. He was soon assassinated by an anti-Mormon at the age of 38. Romney’s father George would try again in 1967 but would prove too gaffe-prone to even last until the early primaries. In 2000, it was Senator Orrin Hatch’s turn and before he was crushed by the Bush campaign a poll found that 17 percent of the country would not vote for a Mormon under any circumstances.

While the past does not portend well for Romney’s campaign, it may turn out that *gasp* his positions on issues of national importance may come into play as well. He will have trouble explaining his recent shift from pro-choice to pro-life and his contention that gay marriage is one of the four main threats facing the country along with radical Islam, the rise of Asia and immigration. Yes, marriage shall only be between a man and a woman…and a woman… and another woman.

Nevertheless, perhaps the American electorate can decide that, to an outsider, all religious doctrine and practice seem strange, and maybe there are better ways to evaluate a candidate for president.

Send comments to Jon Bosscher at [email protected]