June 18, 2011

SOON THERE will be two Mormons running for president if Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, follows through on his plans to join former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the race for the Republican nomination. We look forward to hearing more from them but otherwise would note only that they seem to meet the qualifications prescribed in the Constitution: They are both natural-born citizens over 35 years old who have resided in the United States for at least 14 years.

Yet according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center on People, Politics and the Press, 25 percent of Americans say that they are less likely to vote for a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These results are consistent with other polls stretching back more than four decades. The public’s relative reluctance to judge Mormon candidates as individuals contrasts to progress in attitudes toward other characteristics: According to Pew, only 3 percent of Americans would oppose a black candidate, and 7 percent would object to a woman. Since 2007, willingness to vote for a gay candidate has risen from 51 percent to 62 percent.

The lingering anti-Mormon sentiment is not only inconsistent with the Constitution, which says quite clearly that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” It is a sad comment on communal comity in the United States more generally. What explains it?

No doubt Mormons are dogged by their past association with polygamy, the only factoid many Americans can recall about a minority religion practiced mainly in the West. Some 34 percent of evangelical Protestants would be less likely to vote for a Mormon, due to the long-standing doctrinal rivalry between Mormonism and Protestant fundamentalism. Liberal Democrats, 41 percent of whom oppose a Mormon candidate, are the least Mormon-friendly group, probably because of the church’s social conservatism and the fact that Mormons tend to be Republicans.

Even so, why should progressives feel comfortable expressing an aversion toward Mormons, as a group, that they probably would not show toward Muslims or Catholics — despite the socially conservative preachments of many leaders of those faiths? Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico is a Mormon Democrat who won his seat with the strong support of pro-choice organizations.

There’s plenty about Mormonism that might strike a non-believer as strange or objectionable. Is it literally true that an angel helped Joseph Smith find a sacred book made of golden plates in rural New York almost 200 years ago? It is not to the church’s credit that it fought same-sex marriage in California or that it banned African Americans from its clergy until 1978.

Yet all religions have their prophets, myths and rituals — from the story of the loaves and fishes to male circumcision. And if Mormon institutions have sometimes stood against social progress — well, let the faith that is without sin cast the first stone. Go back to the forced expulsion of Mormons from Illinois in 1846, and you will find that they, too, have been persecuted.

Those who confess aversion to a Mormon presidential candidacy commit a basic fallacy: assuming that an individual is strictly accountable for the entire doctrine of his or her faith and that this doctrine could control his or her conduct as president.

In fact, even if these assumptions were true, the Constitution protects us by requiring the president to swear to “preserve, protect and defend” that document and by providing for the impeachment of anyone who violates that oath. No matter how widespread prejudice against candidates of a particular religion may be, it is never respectable.