NBC is devoting a full one-hour episode of “Rock Center with Brian Williams” to examining Mormonism. The special airs Thursday evening. Hopefully the network’s coverage of Mormonism will not fan the flames of religious prejudice — something the media has frequently done during the 2012 presidential campaign.
Fifty years ago, another presidential candidate faced religious prejudice: John F. Kennedy. Fortunately for Kennedy, the media of his day strongly condemned this bigotry. On Sept. 2, 1960, The Washington Post’s editorial board called religious attacks on Kennedy “bilge,” declaring: “But there can be no doubt whatsoever that [an appeal to anti-Catholic sentiments] debases the political process and does irreparable damage to the fabric of social unity.” Two days later, The New York Times’s editorial board declared: “Millions of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and people of no formal faith will testify that prejudice cannot be endorsed in this country without doing political damage to the persons or candidates who endorse it.”
What a difference 50 years and Republican political affiliation make.
The same journalists who gushed over the “hope and change” promised by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign and endorsed his call for civility in 2011 have eagerly stoked anti-Mormon religious bigotry during the 2012 presidential campaign, hammering the Mormon faith of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
There have been many displays of media-instigated Mormon bigotry. MSNBC anchor Lawrence O’Donnell recently ranted on air that Mormonism was “created by a guy in upstate New York in 1830 when he got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it.” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who wrote a book extolling the memory of John F. Kennedy, has called Romney a “cultist” and complained that the GOP was “willing to outsource it [the election] to a Mormon.” The Post even related the story of a 150-year-old massacre committed by Mormons.
Media anti-Mormon bigotry has surfaced in odd places and been expressed in surreal ways. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has asked bizarre questions about Romney’s faith, querying: “Is Elvis a Mormon?” and “Anne Frank, a Mormon?” Men’s fashion and style magazine GQ put out a nasty piece in its August issue blasting Mitt Romney and his Mormon religion, writing: “[Mormon founder Joseph] Smith, despite having some forty wives, still endeavored to f*** [the word was not starred in the original article] everything in sight.”
And these attacks on Romney’s campaign have arisen in supposedly respectable outlets. Outlets on the far left have concocted and spread ridiculous conspiracies about Mormonism, claiming that it’s responsible for suicides, a “Mormon Mafia,” mind control and prophecies disowned by the Mormon hierarchy.
These slurs tap into the pervasive belief that Mormonism is a weird and dangerous faith. A June 2012 study found that 35 percent of Americans — and 43 percent of liberals — would be “less likely” to vote for a Mormon.
The media has relentlessly exploited this prejudice. Even Al Gore’s train-wreck, Current TV, has joined in the Mormon-bashing. One New York Times contributor called the Mormon Church the “Salt Lake City empire of corporate greed.” Such attacks have not ceased as the election has drawn near; last week another New York Times contributor linked the Mormon Church to racism.
It’s not surprising that more than two-thirds of Utah Mormons don’t trust the media to cover their faith fairly. News outlets have clearly not done so. Nor is it surprising that a nasty presidential campaign, which has already seen ads accusing Romney of killing a woman by taking away her health insurance, would feature religious bigotry. But it is shameful that outlets which eloquently condemned religious bigotry 50 years ago would aid and abet such “bilge” today.
Paul Wilson is the Joe and Betty Anderlik Fellow in Culture and Media at the Media Research Center.