Maligning Mormons

Calling Out Christian Hatemongers

Politicians and journalists shouldn’t turn the other cheek when Mormonism and Mitt Romney are unfairly attacked, says Lauren Ashburn, who scolds her fellow Christians for peddling prejudice.

10.14.11 1:15 AM ET

Right-wing preachers, who are driving much of the political debate in this country, have had a lot to say over the last decade about Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, and most of it is isn’t good. The latest salvo from Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress calling Mormonism a “cult” stirs up an age-old hate tactic designed to bully followers into choosing a leader based on a religious litmus test, not how he or she will lead our country.

And it’s reprehensible.

As a Catholic who attends Mass regularly, drives her kids to Sunday school, and is steeped in the stand-kneel-sit traditions that make up the faith of more than a billion people worldwide, I can’t understand why fellow Christians who believe in the teachings of the same Jesus that I do, serve up nasty rhetoric maligning Mormons.

The religious prejudice seen in the national political debate and aimed at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is nothing new to its members, nor to others persecuted for their faith or lack thereof.

Nor is it new to Hollywood. In the sci-fi movie Contact, Jodie Foster’s character didn’t believe in God, and therefore wasn’t chosen to represent the human race to meet aliens, even though she was clearly the best scientist to do so. The parallel to real life is clear. Among some evangelical preachers, sadly, if you don’t believe in the right Jesus, you can’t become president.

Romney’s fellow Republican candidates, such as Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry (backed by Jeffress at a Washington conference as a true “Christian”), could have quieted the cult controversy, but didn’t. When asked whether Mormons are Christians, the contenders dodged the question—presumably so they wouldn’t offend Republican voters in Iowa, where evangelicals make up anywhere between 35 and 50 percent of the vote. Even Romney initially tried to change the subject by brushing off the attack. 

Preachers and candidates who take even a cursory look at Jesus’s teachings —no matter what Bible they read—should know that Jesus’s commandments in the New Testament are simple: Love your neighbor as yourself and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Based on those very clear directives, not even Jesus could take the side of these designated men of cloth who relish attacking another man’s faith.

When it comes to promulgating the sermonizers’ hypocritical rants, the media are hardly blameless. When Jeffress popped off, networks pounced to cover him, grabbing for a dash of Tabasco sauce to add to a seemingly bland political diet of 59-point plans.

Jeffress was of course tapping into a wellspring of anti-Mormon prejudice in the culture. Many view Mormonism warily, having a hard time coming to grips with some of the teachings that characterize the faith, including the belief that Jesus Christ appeared in the Americas shortly after his resurrection. From the outside, the tenets of any religion can seem confusing or downright weird. But that doesn’t mean Mormons or any other religious group should be condemned for their beliefs.

In a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, just 47 percent of those surveyed said they “feel comfortable” with Romney’s Mormon religion. And too many in the news business are happy to fan the flames under the guise of horse-race journalism—and too many GOP candidates are afraid of offending evangelical voters by challenging such blatant bias.

Controversy, which equals ratings, trumps substance in the omnipresent world of 24/7 news. Remember the flash-in-the-pan case of Texas Pastor Terry Jones who planned to burn Korans on the ninth anniversary of 9/11? The coverage of his inflammatory stunt—which he touted as “very, very stressy”—prompted even the State Department to wade into the fray, condemning the incitement to violence and issuing a travel alert.

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There is a long list of examples of the media covering preachers going off the rails of common-sense decency. Even while seeking the backing of religious conservatives in 2008, John McCain renounced the sought-after endorsement of Pastor John Hagee. In a speech trumpeted by the press, Hagee had said Hitler and the Holocaust were God’s plan to evict Jews from Europe to Palestine.

And it’s not just right-wing religious leaders. In the same year, candidate Barack Obama came under fire for the divisive speeches of his preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who said that blacks should not say “God bless America” but “God damn America.” 

We live in a world where moderate voices are whispered and talking-head political centrists have gone the way of the dinosaur. The same goes for mainstream liberal church leaders, who barely register in the headlines. Yes, the media don’t seek out such figures—because they are less strident and bombastic. But it also holds true that those firmly camped out in the middle bury their heads in the sand when it comes to speaking out against extremists. And it’s time for that to change. Responsible government depends on hearing all voices.

The players in the circus that is our political election process need to remember that just because it seems those who spew hate have bigger bullhorns, are better organized, and know how to turn the lens of the cameras toward them, doesn’t mean their word is God.