Clumsy Comments and Mormon Stereotypes

JANUARY 2012: AS WE SEE IT

by Chad Ray

Many Iowa Republicans going to their local caucuses earlier this month faced an interesting question. Those who describe themselves as “evangelical Christians” found a Mormon leading the pack and often described as the “most electable.” And in the overall field, as of this writing, two candidates are Mormons—Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman—a fact that not all their rivals are too shy to point out. Can evangelicals in good conscience vote for a Mormon? Here in Iowa this is a serious question.

Of course, for some voters, a Mormon affiliation is by itself a virtual disqualification. In Iowa this is no surprise. But among Christians who would support a politically compatible Muslim, atheist, or even (ahem) African-American, supporting a Mormon still strikes some as a vexing issue. I have heard some say so.

How can this be? My own nontheological conjecture is that with some people the issue is not just about religious affiliation or political stereotypes, but is an interesting interplay between the two. I think of a Mormon candidate like a candidate from any other historically underrepresented “community”—women, Jews, or African-Americans. When such candidates seek high office, their bearing toward their presumed natural constituency gets dissected meticulously in the media. Words spoken and meetings held that would go unremarked in the life of any other candidate become campaign fodder. Perhaps we suspect that these gestures come from a place closer to the heart than the routine public relations gloss that handlers and pundits truck in. Perhaps too we are prone to exaggerate attitudes and tendencies that we would not even notice in another candidate. And of course we are looking for congruence with stereotypes, even stereotypes we hold at critical distance. Does Joe Lieberman think like a Zionist fanatic? Hillary Clinton like a radical feminist? Barack Obama like a Kenyan anti-colonialist?

Prudent people, of course, do not indulge in such stereotypes, nor speak of Mormons using stereotypes like “heartless MBAs” or “soulless bores.” But Romney’s remark, for example, that “corporations are people” and his apparently spontaneous offer in a televised debate to bet ten thousand dollars may seem, to some voters, to provide a window to the man’s soul or confirm their misgivings. Strictly speaking, to hear Romney’s missteps as windows to his soul is not necessarily to show anti-Mormon bias. Such voters might be accused of allowing their biases to be confirmed, but that is not quite right. Perhaps before the illadvised comments, the voters held no anti-Mormon or anti-Romney judgments at all. Their judgment is not simply that Romney sometimes does this or says that, as in an unconcerned “we’ve seen this stuff before.” Rather, their judgment may be that a trait is now revealed as deeply ingrained, expressing considered commitments held close to the heart—in other words, “that’s who this person really is.”

In contrast, consider candidates’ sometimes gauche, thoughtless remarks that are passed off as nothing more than that. Joe Biden’s remark in January 2007 about Barack Obama being “clean and well-spoken” might be such a case. Because voters had no reason to take it as more than an innocent gaffe (and not Biden’s first), they viewed it charitably. Biden’s blunder is dismissed but Romney’s may be seen as somehow telling and significant.

If this is right, voters might wince at a candidate’s behavior but reasonably try to see it in light of what they think they know about a candidate’s deeper commitments. By itself a clumsy comment is not enough to negatively affect voter opinion, and neither is affiliation with an often-stereotyped religious group. But a perceived link between the two might reasonably be enough to be decisive.

It is hard to know why people make the political choices they do. While ignorance and unfair bias certainly can and do influence our decision making—we are only human, after all—they rarely tell the full story. Those who are somehow reluctant to vote for a Mormon based on what they perceive to be particularly revealing remarks or actions are, in all likelihood, simply trying to make an informed decision based on what they know to be true—something we can all relate to.

Chad Ray teaches philosophy at Central College in Pella, Iowa.