Stained-glass ceiling: Study says religion can hurt Romney if Mormons don't improve outreach

Published: Tuesday, May 22 2012 4:39 p.m. MDT

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign stop in Pittsburgh, Pa., Friday, May 4, 2012.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

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BYU political science professor Quin Monson co-authored "The Stained Glass Ceiling: Social Contact and Mitt Romney’s 'Religion Problem,’ ” a new research paper in the journal Political Behavior that suggests Romney's chances of beating President Barack Obama in the November general election may hinge on how well members of The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints can accelerate "interreligious bridging" by making more frequent and sustained contact with people who aren't Mormon.

"Our results suggest that Romney’s religion will remain a potential political stumbling block," Monson wrote in tandem with his co-authors, David Campbell of Notre Dame and John Green of the University of Akron. "However, the application of our analysis extends beyond Mitt Romney, and even the electoral viability of Mormon politicians more generally. … Our results suggest that sustained contact across religious boundaries — interreligious bridging — fosters religious tolerance in the political sphere."

"Stained-glass ceiling" imagery is intended as a religious version of the gender-based "glass ceiling" that figuratively inhibits the career advancement of women. The authors perceive Romney's religion to be a potential stumbling block — but also an obstacle that can be overcome through broader outreach by the LDS community — because they say voters who have a close relationship to a Mormon are the only ones who won't respond negatively to incendiary claims such as "Mormons are not Christians."

In other words, the study concluded that even people who have moderate contact with Mormons can quickly — and permanently — be dissuaded from supporting Romney by hearing negative information about the candidate's Mormonism.

"When compared to those who either know a Mormon well or not at all," the study said, "people with a (passing) Mormon acquaintance react to the Not Christian claim with roughly the same intensity as people who have no contact with Mormons … (and) are not reassured by positive information about the Mormon religion — just as voters with sustained contact are not affected by information about Mormonism."

The study is based on data collected in 2008 during Romney's first presidential run. Earlier drafts of the paper were circulated in 2009, but the paper only recently finished its peer-review process. Monson said that, in the interim, new issues have arisen that affect the extent to which Romney's religion will be an issue in the upcoming general election.

"The evidence is clear that (Romney's religion) was a problem in 2008," Monson said. "But we're facing a different context now where he's the presumptive nominee. You've got voters that reacted negatively before that may be changing their calculation given the alternatives they face, given the state of the economy and so on.

"The news headline is that (Romney) hasn't broken through the stained-glass ceiling yet — but he's closer than he got last time."

In November 2009, the three authors jointly published an op-ed piece in USA Today summarizing aspects of their preliminary findings that carried through to the final draft of their paper.

"Our study suggests that Romney's supporters would do well to encourage those who are troubled by his faith to become better informed about Mormonism," the three men wrote for USA Today. "Such a discussion would likely help Romney: Information helps and ignorance hurts his chances. More important, it would help broaden religious tolerance in America."

Last week, the nonpartisan Brookings Institution published a report that arrived at a similar conclusion as Monson's contemporary analysis. Specifically, the Brookings research suggested Romney's religion wouldn't affect American voters in a general election where the two choices for president are the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and his incumbent opponent, Obama.

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