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Why Is Atheism a Bigger Obstacle to Political Office Than Mormonism?

Although it's Republicans who are primarily making the charge that atheists are un-American, Democrats aren't exactly lining up to defend non-believers.

When America was founded, it was the first modern nation to throw off the rule of absolute monarchy and prove that democracy was feasible. But at the same time, when America was founded, it was hardly a democracy at all. The vote was denied to women, to millions of enslaved human beings -- to everyone except a relatively small number of its citizens. Despite the Constitution's prohibition on religious tests, many states had their own established churches that their citizens were compelled to support, and prejudice against Jews, Roman Catholics and other disfavored groups was ferocious.

In large part, the history of America has been a story of one group after another coming forward to demand the equal rights that had been denied to them, and winning those rights through strife and struggle. This process of social change is still playing out today, but some groups are further along the path to acceptance than others.

A 1999 Gallup poll asked Americans whether they would vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate of their own party who happened to belong to one of the following groups: Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Mormon, black, woman, gay, or atheist. Only 49 percent of Americans said they would vote for an atheist candidate, by far the lowest percentage of all the groups. By contrast, 79 percent said they would vote for a Mormon, and even 59 percent said they would vote for a gay candidate. All the other categories had better than 90 percent agreement.

In 2007, Gallup asked the same question again. In this more recent poll, Mormons' popularity dropped to 72 percent, but again, the only category that a majority of voters refused to even consider was atheists. And this discrimination extends outside the political arena. A survey in 2006 found that atheists are " America's most distrusted minority," ranking below immigrants, gays and Muslims in the question of whether average people think we share their view of society. This accords with what I've previously discovered for myself: anti-atheist bias is still a potent force in American politics, and it doesn't just come from the right. It's Republicans who are primarily making the charge that atheists are evil and un-American, but Democrats aren't exactly lining up to defend us.

It seems likely that Americans' tolerance will again be tested in the 2012 elections. There are still no plausible atheist candidates for national office, nor are there likely to be any in the near future; but a Mormon, Mitt Romney, is the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Will his faith be an obstacle? In a piece published on AlterNet, Joe Conason argues that we shouldn't be troubled by the differences between Mormonism and Christianity, but he says little about what those differences actually are. Here are some of the more significant ones:

Mormonism's initial embrace and later recantation of polygamy. The one belief that's most infamously associated with Mormonism is "plural marriage." Although he denied it in public, reliable historians believe that Joseph Smith, the church's founder, had dozens of wives. Allegedly, Joseph Smith's wife, Emma, received a divine revelation addressing her by name -- delivered to her by the mortal medium of Joseph Smith, of course -- telling her to let Joseph take as many wives as he wished, and threatening eternal damnation if she refused permission.

Smith's successors officially made the doctrine part of Mormonism, where it remained for decades. Finally, it was abolished by a suspiciously well-timed revelation to later church leaders when it threatened to block Utah's bid for statehood -- although even today, there are fundamentalist Mormon enclaves that continue to practice polygamy, most of them treating women in ways scarcely distinguishable from slavery. One of the better-known examples was the cult run by Warren Jeffs, prior to his conviction.

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