Skip to content

Why Is Atheism a Bigger Obstacle to Political Office Than Mormonism?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

When America was founded, it was the first modern nation to throw off the rule of absolute monarchy and prove that democracy was feasible. But at the same time, when America was founded, it was hardly a democracy at all. The vote was denied to women, to millions of enslaved human beings — to everyone except a relatively small number of its citizens. Despite the Constitution’s prohibition on religious tests, many states had their own established churches that their citizens were compelled to support, and prejudice against Jews, Roman Catholics and other disfavored groups was ferocious.

In large part, the history of America has been a story of one group after another coming forward to demand the equal rights that had been denied to them, and winning those rights through strife and struggle. This process of social change is still playing out today, but some groups are further along the path to acceptance than others.

A 1999 Gallup poll asked Americans whether they would vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate of their own party who happened to belong to one of the following groups: Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Mormon, black, woman, gay, or atheist. Only 49 percent of Americans said they would vote for an atheist candidate, by far the lowest percentage of all the groups. By contrast, 79 percent said they would vote for a Mormon, and even 59 percent said they would vote for a gay candidate. All the other categories had better than 90 percent agreement.

In 2007, Gallup asked the same question again. In this more recent poll, Mormons’ popularity dropped to 72 percent, but again, the only category that a majority of voters refused to even consider was atheists. And this discrimination extends outside the political arena. A survey in 2006 found that atheists are “America’s most distrusted minority,” ranking below immigrants, gays and Muslims in the question of whether average people think we share their view of society. This accords with what I’ve previously discovered for myself: anti-atheist bias is still a potent force in American politics, and it doesn’t just come from the right. It’s Republicans who are primarily making the charge that atheists are evil and un-American, but Democrats aren’t exactly lining up to defend us.

It seems likely that Americans’ tolerance will again be tested in the 2012 elections. There are still no plausible atheist candidates for national office, nor are there likely to be any in the near future; but a Mormon, Mitt Romney, is the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Will his faith be an obstacle? In a piece published on AlterNet, Joe Conason argues that we shouldn’t be troubled by the differences between Mormonism and Christianity, but he says little about what those differences actually are. Here are some of the more significant ones:

Mormonism’s initial embrace and later recantation of polygamy. The one belief that’s most infamously associated with Mormonism is “plural marriage.” Although he denied it in public, reliable historians believe that Joseph Smith, the church’s founder, had dozens of wives. Allegedly, Joseph Smith’s wife, Emma, received a divine revelation addressing her by name — delivered to her by the mortal medium of Joseph Smith, of course — telling her to let Joseph take as many wives as he wished, and threatening eternal damnation if she refused permission.

Smith’s successors officially made the doctrine part of Mormonism, where it remained for decades. Finally, it was abolished by a suspiciously well-timed revelation to later church leaders when it threatened to block Utah’s bid for statehood — although even today, there are fundamentalist Mormon enclaves that continue to practice polygamy, most of them treating women in ways scarcely distinguishable from slavery. One of the better-known examples was the cult run by Warren Jeffs, prior to his conviction.

Mormonism’s beliefs about the origins of Native Americans. According to the Book of Mormon, Native Americans are the descendants of ancient Jewish settlers who lived around 586 BCE, who received a revelation from God ordering them to build a ship, sail across the ocean and establish a home in the Western Hemisphere, where they eventually developed into a large and complex civilization.

Unfortunately for the LDS church, genetic studies have failed to support this belief: genetic markers point to the Native Americans being descended from ancient Asian peoples who migrated across the Bering Strait. In the face of this evidence, church leaders have hedged and backtracked. Among other things, the church has changed the introduction to the Book of Mormon so that it now says Jewish settlers were only “among” the ancestors of Native Americans, rather than being their “principal ancestors” as was originally written. LDS apologists now mainly hold to a hypothesis called the “limited geography” model which states, in essence, that the events of the Book of Mormon took place in a single small region and left no evidence behind.

Mormonism’s now-recanted belief that black skin is a curse from God for sin. According to the Book of Mormon, one group of American settlers called the Lamanites fell into wickedness and were punished in the following manner:

“And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.” –2 Nephi 5:21

Various members of the LDS church (including members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the church’s governing council) have stated that non-white people were born that way as a punishment for being “less valiant” in the spiritual existence which Mormons believe preceded life on Earth (see here and here). But in either case, whether because of sins committed by their ancestors or because of their own sins in a previous life, people of African descent were excluded from the Mormon priesthood until 1978, when the church’s leaders announced that they had received another revelation ordering that this practice be discontinued. One might be forgiven for thinking that God was more than a little behind the times with this directive.

Their belief that human beings can become gods, and the converse belief that God was once a human being. As Jeffrey Goldberg put it, “[Mormonism’s] relationship to Christianity is similar to Christianity’s relationship to Judaism,” and this is probably the best example of that. The Mormon belief of “exaltation” holds that the most faithful of believers may be elevated literally to divine status, becoming gods in their own right ruling over their own worlds. And they believe this process has occurred in the past: that God was once a human being who underwent the same process, and we are living in the world he created to govern.

As a further point of departure from historical Christian creeds, Mormons also believe in a heavenly mother, a divine feminine being who corresponds to the masculine deity, although this belief seems to be confusing, unclear and frequently overlooked even among Mormons themselves. Part of the reason this belief is often downplayed may be to fit in with the Mormon belief that only men can be initiated into the priesthood and rise to positions of power in the church, while a Mormon woman’s only designated role is to be a mother and a housewife.

Their belief in converting dead people to Mormonism through posthumous baptism. The LDS church performs “baptisms” on behalf of deceased people which, they believe, gives the dead person the opportunity to be posthumously converted to Mormonism and enter into heaven. Personally, I find this no more absurd than all the other churches which likewise claim the power to determine who goes where in the afterlife. Still, it can’t be denied that the LDS church has given itself a black eye with insensitive, embarrassing incidents like posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims against the wishes of their living descendants, not to mention President Obama’s deceased mother.

Their belief in concealing these and other church teachings from non-members. This incredible viewpoint can be seen expressed in, for example, this column by a Mormon editorialist who’s frustrated and upset that the Internet has made it possible for people to find out the “deep, esoteric doctrines” of Mormonism without converting. He refers to this as “an easy way to do yourself more harm than good.”

The general idea seems to be that a person considering Mormonism should first be told about its superficial similarities with Christianity. Only once they’ve converted, once they’ve invested significant time and effort in the religion and are less likely to walk away, should they gradually learn about the things that differentiate Mormonism from other religions. The LDS church refers to this doctrine as “milk before meat.”

I’m not saying that Mormonism, in any objective sense, is any stranger than other beliefs that are considered normal and mainstream by millions of Americans. (All evil in the world is because a talking snake convinced a woman to eat an apple!) Nor am I saying that Mormonism as a whole is any morally worse than any other religion. (It’s hardly the only church to have held deplorable beliefs about gays, women and non-white people.) What I’m saying is that Mormonism is unfamiliar, and prejudice, being based in ignorance, is almost always directed at people and things that are unfamiliar.

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

So why are atheists still widely viewed as unelectable, when a Mormon candidate for president is plausible and maybe even inevitable?

The first and most important reason, I think, is that Mormons try hard not to seem unfamiliar. Their missionaries and apologists go to great lengths to present their beliefs as just another kind of Christianity, with only minor differences with existing denominations. As we’ve seen, this is far from true, but it probably convinces many low-information voters. Considering that most Americans are even ignorant of basic facts about Christianity, the religion that 85 percent of them theoretically belong to, it wouldn’t be hard for a Mormon missionary to gloss over the differences in conversation. Atheists, of course, have no way to make a similar argument.

Tied in with this is the fact that Mormons put so much effort into presenting a public image of straitlaced sobriety and moral rectitude. Atheists, being far more diverse in our personal beliefs, are more easily stereotyped as moral degenerates — despite data showing that, on the whole, we’re at least as moral as everyone else, and even better than average in some respects.

And lastly, there’s one more factor to consider, at least when it comes to religious conservatives: Mormons have worked hard to reassure the Christian right that they’re on the same side. For instance, the LDS church and evangelical Christians found common cause in fighting marriage equality in California. But a more direct example was a speech given by Mitt Romney in 2007.

Romney’s speech has been compared to a famous 1960 speech by John F. Kennedy about the role of religious tolerance in America, but the similarities were only superficial. President Kennedy spoke of church-state separation as one of America’s greatest ideals and vowed that religious doctrine should never dictate public policy.

Romney took a different tack, arguing that we should write religious doctrines into law, but only doctrines shared by a sufficiently large number of American believers. As I wrote at the time, Romney “doesn’t truly want a candidate’s religious beliefs to be considered irrelevant. He’s just pleading for the circle of religious bigotry toward outsiders expanded slightly to include him — so that he can be in the inside, hurling barbs at those who believe differently, rather than on the outside…”

As proof of this, Romney said in the same speech that “freedom requires religion” — which means, as the Christian blogger Slacktivist pointed out, that atheists and nonbelievers must be the enemies of freedom. This is a shameful path for a member of a historically despised and misunderstood group to tread: in effect, telling the majority, “You shouldn’t hate us! Let’s join forces and work together so we can both hate that other group of people, over there. They’re the evil ones!”

Image credit: Ricardo630, released under CC BY-SA 2.5 license; via Wikimedia Commons


Up Next
Most atheist writers in America have encountered the phenomenon of “fatwa envy“, where Christian apologists sneer that we wouldn’t dare criticize Islam in the same way we criticize Christianity. (This […]