The New New Bigotry

On February 12, 2002, Denver Post columnist Woody Paige unleashed one of the most controversial columns in the history of his paper. His article blasted the Winter Olympics then underway as a “massive Mormon marketing scheme,” and went on to lampoon the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a gusto that shocked—and not just Mormons. Paige argued that Colorado ought to counter-market by publishing a brochure that urged readers to “Visit beautiful Colorado. We won’t force you to take a religious brochure at every street corner, make you eat lime Jell-O at every meal … marry three of your mother’s cousins, [or] consider you inferior if you’re not white, a man, or heterosexual….”

I was reminded of the Paige controversy when I read a piece last month by Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate, the online magazine owned by the Washington Post Co. Titled simply, “A Mormon President? No Way,” the December 20 column is, simply put, an exercise in bigotry.

”[I]f he gets anywhere in the primaries,” Weisberg declared, “Romney’s religion will become an issue with moderate and secular voters—and rightly so.” And as if realizing that he has just declared open season on religious belief, Weisberg quickly added: “Objecting to someone because of his religious beliefs is not the same thing as prejudice based on religious heritage, race, or gender.”

Thus does the left casually open the door to the baldest sort of bigotry, a first cousin of the anti-Catholicism thought buried in 1960, or the anti-Semitism that continues to plague Europe and of course the Middle East. The not-so-deft substitution of “religious heritage” for “religion” is supposed, I guess, to protect Jews willing to abandon the outward display of their faith, but for anyone believing in the miraculous of any sort, well, those days of the great tolerance in American politics are over.

Theologian and evangelical scholar, professor John Mark Reynolds of Biola University rebuked Weisberg in detail on his blog on January 5, adding that “Christians tempted to join in the laughter [at Mormon doctrine] should remember Balaam’s ass, Noah’s ark, and the water turned to wine.” Reynolds continued:

The only good religion is going to end up being Cornel West, liberal, Anglican, Vatican II was too conservative, mushy religion. If you mean it when you say the Creed, Weisberg thinks you are “monolithic, literalistic, and cultish.”

I assume Weisberg means what he is writing now . . . within the monolithic world of the East Coast intelligentsia . . . and means to be understood as meaning what he says. . . hence literally . . . and will give his vote to nobody who does not bow the knee to the Cult of Secularism’s definite belief in unbelief.

Reynolds’ commentary on Weisberg’s bigotry was rather lonely. Weisberg’s naked exercise in faith-based bile went largely unremarked.

Not that he would have the courage to do so, but imagine if Weisberg had assaulted Rep. Keith Ellison’s Islamic faith in the same terms, or Sen. Sam Brownback’s relatively recent conversion to Roman Catholicism, or even Sen. Joe Lieberman’s faithful practice of his Jewish faith. Weisberg argues, lamely, that “a few eons makes a big difference,” and that the “world’s greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor.” In other words, Weisberg simply assumes that practitioners of these other faiths don’t really believe in the miraculous.

In the course of reporting on the Mormon faith for PBS in the mid-1990s, I heard many denunciations of the theology of Mormons from non-Mormons, but never the idea that their religious beliefs rendered them second-class Americans who ought not be trusted with high office. I have heard thousands of complaints from conservatives about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his politics, but none of them attack the man because he is Mormon. And in the year of research and interviews that went into my forthcoming book on Mitt Romney, when someone got close to the line that Weisberg so bluntly decided to cross, they stopped, hesitated, and evidence the reluctance to declaim the sort of denunciation of a faith that was long the domain of nativists and racists. But now that Romney appears the most conservative Republican in serious contention for the White House, it is open season on Mormons.

In mid-November I addressed a session of the Evangelical Theological Society, an organization of more than 4,000 evangelical scholars. I used the time to warn the theologians that the secular press would soon be approaching them to harvest anti-Mormon quotes for use in profiles of Mitt Romney, and to recognize that to the extent they cooperated in the project to chase Mormons from the public square, and to legitimize the sort of private religious test the public counterpart to which is specifically forbidden by the Constitution, they would be building their own pyre.

Weisberg’s attack on Romney is exactly the sort of attack on other Christians and believers in the miraculous that the secular left would love to make routine. To mainstream Protestants and Mass-attending Catholics, the virtual mob against Romney because of his LDS faith may seem like someone else’s problem, but it is really another step down the road toward the naked public square. Legitimizing bigotry by refusing to condemn it invites not only its repetition, but its spread to new targets.