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The subtler side of religious bigotry

Lawrence O'Donnell and other elite media commentators have recently revealed a subtle disdain for aspects of the LDS faith.
Lawrence O'Donnell and other elite media commentators have recently revealed a subtle disdain for aspects of the LDS faith.
Richard Drew, Associated Press

Like a tide rolling in, the media coverage of Mormonism has surged in recent weeks. But unlike coverage during other recent surges — such as that around the time Pastor Robert Jeffress called Mormonism a cult — some of the recent articles have a newfound edge.

Take, for example, the Room for Debate topic in the New York Times this week: "What is it about Mormons (that turns voters off)?" More troubling than the tactlessness of the question was the decision to populate the panel of "debaters" with commentators eager to perpetuate banal stereotypes of Mormonism. The nation's paper of record could surely have assembled a more informed and balanced group to address the topic.

But veiled contempt for Mormonism is becoming too regular of a feature on the opinion pages of the Times which published an incomprehensible screed against the faith by scholar Harold Bloom several months ago and has allowed columnist Maureen Dowd to perpetuate outlandish caricatures of Latter-day Saint doctrine from such "authorities" on the subject as comedian Bill Maher.

The Times isn't alone. From an ominous portrayal of Mitt Romney's Mormon family history by MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell to Salon's pure fictionalization of Mormon folklore, the left-of-center media is revealing a deep-seated disdain for the faith. Recent book reviews even criticize a newly published history of Mormonism for being even-handed treatment, rather than an expose of a sinister religion.

Of course, little of this media coverage is a direct attack on the Mormon faith. No one is calling it, say, a cult, as the right-wing evangelical critic Jeffress did last fall. Rather, the formula seems to be to target Mitt Romney, attempting to make him seem weird and suspect by using a subtle appeal to existing uncertainty about Mormonism. At bottom, these attacks may be motivated less by contempt for Mormonism than by the desire to vilify a Republican candidate who happens to be Mormon — and latent prejudice against Mormons happens to be a convenient tool.

It's no secret that a certain segment of the left doesn't like Mormons. Polling data from the Pew Research center, for example, shows that those who claim no religious affiliation are even more disinclined to vote for a Mormon than are many evangelical Christians. Some pollsters have brushed this aside, saying it won't hurt Romney because those people were never going to vote for a Republican anyway.

Perhaps. But that latent bias could badly damage civil discourse, understanding and decency if it triggers more of the thinly veiled anti-Mormon columns that have begun resurfacing of late. When Mormonism is used as a blunt instrument to cast suspicion, even the faith's strengths can be distorted into targets. Consciously chosen wholesomeness becomes naivete; a focus on family and community becomes clannishness; charitable giving becomes tacit support of oligarchy.

Americans should be above smearing an entire religion for political reasons. The media seemed to understand this in October, when Jeffress attacked Mormonism as a cult and liberal pundits sprang to its defense. It would be nice to see that same concern for intolerance and bigotry applied to the more subtle but no less destructive digs from the left.

Some critics of Romney's campaign complain that it wants to make all questions about Mormonism off limits by labeling questioners as bigots. That would, of course, be unrealistic and oversensitive. But there is a line between asking legitimate questions about Romney's political beliefs and personal life on the one hand, and painting a sinister portrait of Mormonism on the other. Responsible media organizations know the difference.