How (Not) to React to Anti-Mormon Sentiment in the South

Still holding a commanding lead in New Hampshire—despite a strong surge by his Mormon cousin and rival Jon Huntsman (who spoke some refreshing truths and scored points on Romney during Saturday’s debate)—Mitt Romney is already investing heavily in doing what conventional wisdom thought impossible a few months ago: winning in the South.

Romney is now up by double-digits in South Carolina, the first primary south of the Mason-Dixon line. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard LDS people say that a Mormon candidate like Romney could “never win in the South” owing to historically deep-seated anti-Mormon prejudice. (For a refresher course on the roots of that prejudice, please see this interview with religion historian Patrick Mason here at RD.)

Chalk Romney’s lead in South Carolina up to key endorsements, superior on-the-ground organization, the weakness of the Republican field, and perhaps even a bit of primaries fatigue (already!) as GOP voters settle down and reconcile themselves to the fact that they may be going to the big dance with the steady but stiff Mr. Romney after all.

But this doesn’t mean that talk about his Mormonism will end. In fact, we’re likely to see more of it in the days ahead, as every last public figure who ever learned that Mormons are a cult in his or her Sunday School has a say.

Most recently, it was State Representative Judy Manning of Georgia who told the Marietta Daily Journal last week that “I think Mitt Romney is a nice man, but I’m afraid of his Mormon faith. It’s better than a Muslim. Of course, every time you look at the TV these days you find an ad on there telling us how normal they are. So why do they have to put ads on the the TV just to convince us that they’re normal if they are normal?… If the Mormon faith adhered to a past philosophy of pluralism, multi-wives, that doesn’t follow the Christian faith of one man and one woman, and that concerns me.”

Manning has now apologized to Mormons for her remarks, signaling that in 2012—unlike in years previous—it is no longer publicly acceptable to express open anti-Mormon prejudice, especially in the context of this race. I think we turned a major corner on this issue back in October, when just about every major media outlet leaped on Pastor Robert Jeffress for his anti-Mormon outburst.

But to the point: I don’t care what Pastor Jeffress or Representative Manning think of my religion. Anti-Mormon sentiment and prejudice is going to continue to bubble up in the primaries’ Southern swing. Let’s have it out: every last stitch of it, so that folks can finally hear how ridiculous they sound, and then we can all move on.

What does matter to me is how Mormons respond to moments like these. Memories of anti-Mormon persecution are deep-seated in Mormon culture, dating to the nineteenth-century mob violence that took the life of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith and spurred our removal to the Great Basin. There is a tendency—even now, as Mormons enjoy prosperity, safety, and well-being in the United States—for us to treasure these old feelings of persecution. But that’s hardly the most courageous, positive, or even honest response to anti-Mormonism.

The best we can do is to use moments like these to build empathy, awareness, and understanding of the experience of other minorities in the U.S.—particularly Muslims, to whom, I’m afraid, Representative Manning has not apologized. Virtually no one who bashes Muslims in public these days does. That’s a shame. (And it’s also a shame that Mitt Romney has appointed advisors with a record of Islamophobic speech and conduct.)

Given our experience, Mormons should be among the first to raise our voices in defense of our Muslim fellow citizens, and others who get alienated and marginalized in the United States. Because anti-Mormonism is not just about Mormons: it is, as all prejudices are, connected to and within larger patterns of racism, xenophobia, and discrimination. It all stems from the fact that people who feel secure in their social priority feel entitled to humiliate, exclude, dispose of, and abuse those designated as “outside” the circuits of privilege. And for most folks, that abuse reaches far deeper than a few cast-off remarks by a state representative in the course of a presidential contest where the Mormon candidate is winning. If you are worrying about Rep. Manning’s comments, take a moment to educate yourself on Georgia’s policies on immigrants. It might change your perspective on how it feels to be targeted in the U.S. these days.

Romney looks to be beating historic anti-Mormon sentiment in the South, but anti-Mormon sentiment will continue to bubble up. What matters from here on out is how Mormons respond and what lessons we take from it.

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