How Mitt Romney's Supporters Are Like Uncle Leo

We always knew that Mormonism was going to be a touchy issue in this presidential campaign. After all, there are still many Americans who express discomfort with the idea of a Mormon president (up to 40 percent, depending on how you ask the question). But it's one thing when you ask that question in the abstract, and quite another when we're talking about a particular Mormon. In that case, I'm fairly sure that nearly everyone is going to decide their votes on how they feel about Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, not how they feel about Joseph Smith. Even Robert Jeffress, the Baptist minister and Rick Perry supporter who only a couple of months ago denounced Mormonism as a "cult," just announced that he'll be supporting a member of that cult for president, since Obama is so vile unto his sight. But all that doesn't mean that the Romney campaign and its supporters aren't going to be on the lookout for any anti-Mormon slights, so long as they come from Democrats.

You may remember that back in August, the Obama campaign called Romney "weird," and conservatives immediately rushed to charge that this was a dog whistle to anti-Mormon voters, since "weird" is obviously code for "Mormon." And now it's starting up again. Alec MacGillis at TNR has a good roundup of some recent cries of anti-Mormonism from Romney supporters, including the idea that when the Obama campaign criticized Romney for a "penchant for secrecy," they were plainly trying to get people to think "Mormon!" because the LDS church is secretive.

This is all pretty ridiculous, not least because you have a situation where the supporters of one candidate are accusing the supporters of another candidate of dog whistling on a topic both actual candidates have no desire at all to discuss. Furthermore, the voters most likely to feel a strong aversion to Mormonism are evangelical Christians, who vote overwhelmingly Republican anyway, and it isn't like too many of them are going to be persuaded to vote for Barack Obama based on some winking and nodding about "weirdness." There are so many other things that the Obama campaign wants to attack Romney on; they hardly need to invest energy in trying to get people to vote against him because of his religion, which would risk an enormous backlash.

So Romney's supporters end up sounding a lot like the old Jewish man who sees anti-Semitism everywhere. Romney's weird? Anti-Mormonism! Romney's secretive? Anti-Mormonism! Romney's stiff? Anti-Mormonism! It brings to mind this classic from Annie Hall, where Woody Allen is convinced that when someone said "Did you eat?" to him, what the guy was really saying was, "Jew eat?"

And though it can't be embedded, here's a link to Uncle Leo.


There's something else at play in the dynamic of "weird" equals "anti Mormon" that you probably don't know if you don't live in Utah.

As a lifelong Utahn (and non-Mormon), I have seen first hand what happens when anyone dares criticize or even simply comment on anything done by Mormons with regard to their faith - Mormons immediately cry persecution. It's an intrinsic part of how Mormons are taught to think about their faith from the cradle to the grave. Mormonism's persecution narrative is taught as a present reality no matter whether or not Mormons today have actually experienced persecution, discrimination or bigotry due to their faith. The story goes like this:

Joseph Smith was murdered by anti-Mormon bigots, who then drove the Mormons out of the midwest. The Mormons escaped the Midwest by the skin of their teeth, fleeing angry mobs with pitchforks and torches who destroyed Mormon communities. Mormons arrived in Utah and managed to create a flourishing community here. Unspoken in the mindset of many of today's LDS faithful is a sense of Utah as a fortress, a safe but besieged place in which they are constantly under threat of being attacked again.

The Mormon persecution narrative is central to how Mormons understand their faith and its relationship with the world and with other faiths. Mormons hear criticisms of Mormonism and of Mormons in the context of that narrative. Thus, to a faithful Utah Mormon, someone describing Mitt Romney as "weird" is engaging in anti-Mormon attacks on the faith itself; when issues like baptism for the dead being performed for Holocaust survivors come up, Mormons literally cannot understand why anyone is offended because Mormons are always the victims in Mormon history. Yes, there is a real history of violence against Mormons, but it's been a very long time. But the way Mormon history is taught to Mormons, it's as if it happened yesterday. They are ready to hear in any critcism of Romney criticisms of Mormonism and they will hear them that way.

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