If I were to tell you a recent poll had pinpointed one issue involving Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney that would cause almost 30 percent of the electorate "concern," what might you guess that issue to be? You might guess that his stance on downsizing the government, which would involve massive cuts to education, could be the divisive issue. Maybe you would suggest that his opposition to federal health care mandates could be the culprit. You might even point to Governor Romney's history with Bain Capital, which has been a hot topic over the past few months in the national news media.
In a shocking survey released at the end of last month by the Wall Street Journal, over one in four respondents cited Romney's Mormon background as a factor that would "cause either them or their neighbor concern." Besides the initial surprise I felt after seeing how high that number was, I felt increasingly disappointed in American voters the more I thought about what this poll was really implying.
Less than four years after this country took what seemed to be a massive step forward in race relations by electing our first African-American president, these poll respondents have demonstrated that dangerous stereotypes and biases of other kinds are still very much alive and well in America. To say that more than a quarter of voters would have inhibitions selecting a candidate due to nothing more than his religious beliefs speaks volumes about how much ignorance continues to exist among our electorate.
I would venture to guess that the majority of people who responded affirmatively to the poll have never actually met or held a conversation with a Mormon -- even though Mormonism is the fastest-growing U.S. religious denomination. It seems to me that such a lack of regular interaction is the cause of widespread ignorance, which in turn breeds fear and hate; people fear what they do not know. Although it is alarming to me that so many people feel concerned about Romney's religious beliefs, I can't really condemn all of them because some might simply lack understanding. Perhaps they truly don't know much about Mormonism, and what they do hear about the denomination consists of slanted half-truths that paint the religion as a cult-like renegade branch of Christianity. One has to wonder how the American voters and news media would treat a Jewish or Muslim candidate -- or even an atheist candidate -- in the future. What about an openly gay candidate? Based on the hostility directed at Romney's personal beliefs in this election cycle, I can't say with any certainty that America appears ready to elect a leader whose personal background is anything but mainstream. Maybe our election of Barack Obama as the first black president four years ago was more a symptom of widespread anti-Bush backlash than a signal of significant social progress.
I hope American voters will eventually come to disregard such irrelevant factors as a candidate's religion, skin color or what they did on spring break in 1975 when choosing the leader of the free world. We can't afford to reduce our presidential elections to glorified referendums on religion. It's time to focus on the real issues. President Obama's campaign has already stated that it won't attempt to use Gov. Romney's religious beliefs against him in the race, which is commendable, considering Obama is likely to need all the help he can get while seeking reelection this November. This promising move by the Obama campaign begs the common sense question: If Romney's political archrival isn't even willing to consider religion fair game in this election, why should you?