Religious prejudice has become a major campaign issue during the Republican primaries this fall. Not surprisingly, it’s the “M” word. Surprisingly, the M word in question is not “Muslim.” While Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain have both made remarks about the alleged dangers of sharia law in American courts, the M word making the most waves is “Mormon.” The issue is this: Will a key Republican voting bloc—conservative evangelical Christians—refuse to support the likely front-runner, Mitt Romney, a Mormon?
The biggest wave thus far was caused by Robert Jeffress, who introduced presidential hopeful Rick Perry at the Values Voter Summit in October and then made the rounds of reporters declaring Mitt Romney’s religion a “cult” and saying “born-again followers of Christ should always prefer [a] competent Christian to a competent non-Christian like Mitt Romney.”
Watching the news coverage of this incident, I’ve been struck by two things. One, for the most part, the tone that the media appears to be taking regarding an issue of blatant religious prejudice is what I would call “descriptive/inquisitive.”
Cable news anchors ask questions such as, “Do you think Romney’s religion is going to cost him the election?” Replace the term “religion” with “economic plan,” and the tone would be the same. Now imagine if we replace Romney’s “religion” with Romney’s “race” or “gender.” The tone changes—it goes from descriptive/inquisitive to offended and outraged—and it should. That’s because our society has, again for the most part, recognized that counting someone’s race against her in a political election is an act of prejudice, and it’s bad. So why is counting someone’s religion against him any less an act of prejudice? Why has our media become enlightened enough to call out racism or sexism in political races, but when it comes to religious prejudice, the tone is, “Gee, look at that. Wonder how that faith is going to play?”