19 June 2012
I mentioned the other day that Centre academic David Smith has just put out a new paper suggesting that anti-Mormon attitudes could hurt Mitt Romney's chances in November. The study itself has got some attention around the blogosphere, with Buzzfeed, Andrew Sullivan, Matt Drudge, and Alex Pareene all making reference to it. And with David Frum and the Brookings Institute [PDF] arguing that Romney's Mormonism could — contra David's findings — be a positive for the Republican candidate, the electoral consequences of Romney's religious beliefs have been up for some discussion.
As such, I thought it might be illuminating to ask David a few questions about Mormons, Mitt, and American attitudes to each. Here's what he told me:
Jonathan Bradley: A recent study by the Brookings Institute suggests that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism will not pose a threat to his electoral prospects and may even endear him to conservatives. The authors acknowledge that their survey is not nationally representative, but is their work useful nonetheless? How does it accord with your own research?
David Smith: As I point out in my recent paper, there is another study (actually just published in the journal Political Behavior, by David Campbell and his co-authors) that used similar survey experiment techniques but got very different results — Mormonism does matter, and priming respondents with Mormonism as opposed to generic Christianity made them less favourable to Romney. So who do we believe? In survey research, all else being equal, go with the findings based on a random national sample. Online polls just have too many selection bias problems, in this case respondents were probably better informed than average and less susceptible to priming.
Is the American electorate well informed about Mormonism? How separate to the American mainstream are Mormons today?
No, the American electorate is not well informed about Mormonism. As a general rule, most people aren’t that well informed about religions they don’t belong to. Americans don’t know whether or not Mormons are Christians, confuse mainstream Mormonism with polygamous cults (who call themselves “fundamentalist” Mormons but are not recognised by the church) and subscribe to an array of both positive and negative stereotypes (e.g. Mormons are all friendly and cheerful, but also secretive and weird).
One writer criticises the Brookings survey on the basis that the information given to respondents about Mormonism is given in neutral and unbiased language. He says that in an electoral environment, representations of Romney’s religion are likely to be misleading and hostile. How influential might misinformation about Romney’s church be in the general election?
It is very difficult to tell, because misinformation is unlikely to be circulated openly. It is generally not acceptable to attack a religion outright — though as I point out in my paper, people seem far more comfortable expressing their prejudices about Mormons than they do about other groups. But misinformation largely circulates through network-specific communication, be it in church groups or through chain emails (which were largely responsible for spreading the rumour that Barack Obama is a Muslim). So don’t look for big attacks in the media (with the exception of militant secularists like Bill Maher), but a lot of Americans will hold distorted views about Mormons that came from family and friends.
How hostile are evangelical conservatives to the Mormon faith? Is it possible Romney may have trouble turning out the Republican base because of his religion?
There is a lot of diversity of evangelical opinion on Mormons. The majority of evangelicals believe they are not Christians, but many have no real problem with them. Some, however, are quite hostile, viewing them as competitors for souls who dishonestly call themselves Christians. Mormonism from that viewpoint is quite evil.
In Rolling Stone earlier this year, Rick Perlstein argued that conservative Protestants will accept Romney’s Mormonism the way they did Catholicism after the two faiths found common cause in opposing abortion. Does politics matter more than religion in America today?
There is a theory, most recently and thoroughly put forward by Robert Putnam and the aforementioned David Campbell, that the “culture war” basically means that religious conservatives of all denominations have been politically realigning on the same against religious liberals and secularists from similarly diverse backgrounds. Over time, evangelicals may come to see Mormons as reliable allies. I see some evidence that it is beginning to go that way at the margins, but not enough yet to erode traditional evangelical ambivalence.
I previously interviewed David about Mitt Romney and Mormonism this past February. You can read that interview here.
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