Why Is Atheism a Bigger Obstacle to Political Office Than Mormonism?
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Their belief in converting dead people to Mormonism through posthumous baptism. The LDS church performs "baptisms" on behalf of deceased people which, they believe, gives the dead person the opportunity to be posthumously converted to Mormonism and enter into heaven. Personally, I find this no more absurd than all the other churches which likewise claim the power to determine who goes where in the afterlife. Still, it can't be denied that the LDS church has given itself a black eye with insensitive, embarrassing incidents like posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims against the wishes of their living descendants, not to mention President Obama's deceased mother.
Their belief in concealing these and other church teachings from non-members. This incredible viewpoint can be seen expressed in, for example, this column by a Mormon editorialist who's frustrated and upset that the Internet has made it possible for people to find out the "deep, esoteric doctrines" of Mormonism without converting. He refers to this as "an easy way to do yourself more harm than good."
The general idea seems to be that a person considering Mormonism should first be told about its superficial similarities with Christianity. Only once they've converted, once they've invested significant time and effort in the religion and are less likely to walk away, should they gradually learn about the things that differentiate Mormonism from other religions. The LDS church refers to this doctrine as "milk before meat."
I'm not saying that Mormonism, in any objective sense, is any stranger than other beliefs that are considered normal and mainstream by millions of Americans. (All evil in the world is because a talking snake convinced a woman to eat an apple!) Nor am I saying that Mormonism as a whole is any morally worse than any other religion. (It's hardly the only church to have held deplorable beliefs about gays, women and non-white people.) What I'm saying is that Mormonism is unfamiliar, and prejudice, being based in ignorance, is almost always directed at people and things that are unfamiliar.
So why are atheists still widely viewed as unelectable, when a Mormon candidate for president is plausible and maybe even inevitable?
The first and most important reason, I think, is that Mormons try hard not to seem unfamiliar. Their missionaries and apologists go to great lengths to present their beliefs as just another kind of Christianity, with only minor differences with existing denominations. As we've seen, this is far from true, but it probably convinces many low-information voters. Considering that most Americans are even ignorant of basic facts about Christianity, the religion that 85 percent of them theoretically belong to, it wouldn't be hard for a Mormon missionary to gloss over the differences in conversation. Atheists, of course, have no way to make a similar argument.
Tied in with this is the fact that Mormons put so much effort into presenting a public image of straitlaced sobriety and moral rectitude. Atheists, being far more diverse in our personal beliefs, are more easily stereotyped as moral degenerates -- despite data showing that, on the whole, we're at least as moral as everyone else, and even better than average in some respects.
And lastly, there's one more factor to consider, at least when it comes to religious conservatives: Mormons have worked hard to reassure the Christian right that they're on the same side. For instance, the LDS church and evangelical Christians found common cause in fighting marriage equality in California. But a more direct example was a speech given by Mitt Romney in 2007.