SALT LAKE CITY — When asked how Joe Lieberman's Jewish faith would affect his campaign, a U.S. senator from Louisiana said, "I don't think American voters care where a man goes to church on Sunday."
The senator had forgot that Lieberman, a practicing Jew, worships at a synagogue, not a church, on Saturday, not Sunday. The comment was an example of an ignorance about religious minorities that can sometimes lead to religious bigotry at the polls. Mitt Romney's candidacy may be a sign things are changing.
Many Americans believe Barack Obama's inauguration marked a rejection of racial prejudices in America. Some feel the election of a Mormon president could mark a rejection of religious prejudice, at least of Mormons.
"Obama's election in 2008 and inauguration in 2009 represented the advancement of America in racial dialogue and relationships," said Keith Hamilton, an adjunct law professor at Brigham Young University and BYU's first black law graduate. "If a Latter-day Saint were elected president, it would represent another example of how America has grown up about these issues."
"The LDS Church has suffered greater religious persecution in its history than any other religious group in American history," said Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, a practicing Jew. "For a member of the LDS Church to be elected president, or honestly even just to come close, would represent in some important way a repudiation of (anti-Mormon) prejudice."
"And make no mistake about it," Feldman warned, "that prejudice is real."
Prejudice against Mormons began when their founding prophet and president, Joseph Smith, claimed heavenly visions in upstate New York. Subsequently, he and his followers were driven from Ohio to Missouri to Illinois. After Smith's violent death in Illinois, more persecution prompted a mass exodus to the Salt Lake Valley. The flight to the Utah Territory didn't stay American prejudice; it continued with the Utah War and the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which dictated the incarceration of polygamists and the federal confiscation of Church land.
Even after Utah's incorporation as a state in 1896, the U.S. House of Representatives still refused to seat the recently elected Mormon, B.H. Roberts. In the early twentieth century American-Mormon relations began to turn a corner, but only after Reed Smoot's Congressional hearings. Reed Smoot (a Mormon Apostle) was elected to the U.S. senate in 1903, yet his seating faced a three-year-long Congressional debate that included a three-day-long interrogation of Mormon Prophet Joseph F. Smith.
Smoot's distinguished thirty-year career in the senate, along with other 20th century developments, eventually helped assuage Mormonphobia by showing Americans that the LDS Church was, by most accounts, a benign institution.
Despite this progression, studies continue to find that prejudices against the LDS persist. A 2007 Vanderbilt University survey concurred, finding that "bias against Mormons is significantly more intense among the public compared to bias against women and blacks."
Hamilton laments that recent "acceptance of the Latter-Day Saints in politics and the general population has been slower than the acceptance of African-Americans in America." A Gallup poll study showed that in 1967 only 53 percent of potential voters were willing to support a black presidential candidate, and 57 percent a female candidate; for Mormons, it was 75 percent. By 2007 the results had changed dramatically in favor of blacks — as 94 percent said they could support a black candidate — and women: 88 percent were willing to back a female candidate. But the number who said they would be able to vote for a Mormon dropped to 72 percent.
"You'd be surprised," said Feldman, "by how many people pride themselves on having no prejudices at all but preserve a little place in their heart for this kind of soft anti-Mormon prejudice."
Dividing bias against Mormons into two categories, Feldman described hard prejudices and soft prejudices.
The former are ideologically based and more common among conservative evangelicals. Usually based on vague or misinformed notions of LDS theology, these prejudices are very hard to overcome.
Soft prejudices, on the other hand, are commonly based on a sense that Mormons are somehow different, or weird. "That kind of (soft) prejudice can be overcome and Mitt Romney has overcome it in his life. He overcame it by becoming the governor of Massachusetts. Frankly, his father overcame it in his time by becoming the governor of Michigan. So it can be overcome by someone like Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman for that matter," Feldman said.
Hamilton, whose great-grandfather was a slave, was proud of Obama's election, "I was born in 1958 in the Jim Crow south. I never imagined in my lifetime any African-American president or president of African descent," he said.
When asked what Hamilton, an LDS convert and one of the LDS Church's first black bishops, would think if a Mormon were elected in 2012, he said, "If you think about the history and about having presidents from those groups elected back to back, to me that would be some type of personal sign (of progress)."
Of course, Hamilton may choose not to vote for another Mormon, or for a Republican for that matter — the Mormon with the highest-ranking office in the U.S. is Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat. Also, the LDS Church is strict in its political neutrality and does not "attempt to direct its members as to which candidate or party they should give their votes to," according to its political neutrality statement. "This policy applies whether or not a candidate for office is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
Neutrality aside, "many Mormons would doubtless celebrate a Mormon presidency as a long-awaited bookend to the story of Mormon exile from America," said Terryl L. Givens, noted Mormon scholar and author of "People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture," via email. "And such a success would help the church immeasurably to bury misconceptions and polygamous associations that belong in the past."
Yet, he cautioned, "other Mormons might wonder if such an achievement would signify full assimilation into the mainstream — and if that would necessarily be a good thing."
In Givens' book, he writes that by "consciously evoking the design of the Salt Lake Temple," the Washington D.C. Temple "reflects the Mormons' triumphant return to the capital of the nation that once exiled them."
Whether an LDS presidency would reflect the same symbolic meaning is yet to be seen.