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Stephan Savoia, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, turns to shake New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's hand after he endorsed Romney for president in Lebanon, N.H., Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 11, 2011.

Referring to anti-Mormonism as "the prejudice of our age," columnist William Saletan of Slate.com uses an impressive collection of research data to make his point that "the prejudices you need to work on aren't the ones you recognize in your grandparents' generation. They're the ones you don't recognize in your own generation, and in yourself."

Saletan, who writes about science, technology and religion for Slate, contrasted the response of Republican presidential candidates to last week's story about a rock with a racist word written on it at Gov. Rick Perry's family hunting camp to the response of those same candidates to last weekend's attacks on Mitt Romney's membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"The gap between these two episodes — clear condemnations of racism, but silence and ambiguity about anti-Mormonism — illustrates a fundamental weakness in our understanding of bigotry," Saletan writes. "We're always fighting the last war. We hammer a politician's connection to prejudice against blacks … because nearly everyone recognizes this bigotry as bigotry. Denouncing it is easy.

"What's hard," he continues, "is speaking out against a bias that isn't so widely recognized. It's politically difficult because challenging a common prejudice could cost you votes. And it's morally difficult because the biases of your era are hard to see."

Saletan cites several different public opinion surveys — Gallup, Pew, Quinnipiac, Lawrence and Poll Position — to show that while prejudice against voting for black, female, Catholic, Jewish and Hispanic candidates has declined significantly during the past half-century, prejudice against voting for a Mormon candidate remains high. This anti-Mormon bias is even higher statistically among Democrats than it is among Republicans, Saletan observes.

"The lesson in these numbers is that we should focus our scrutiny not where we all agree, but where we don't," Saletan writes, concluding this about bigotry: "You'll know it when you see it, but you won't see it until you know that's what it is."

Another reporter, former Congressman Joe Scarborough who now works for MSNBC, wrote a guest column for Politico.com in which he challenges the Christian conduct of those who attacked Romney's LDS Church membership last weekend.

"I have always been fascinated by mere mortals who arrogantly ignore Jesus's teachings to make declarations about the salvation of other men's souls," Scarborough wrote. "Modern American politics as practiced by [Dallas pastor Robert] Jeffress and his ilk require that Jesus Christ be thrown under the bus with great regularity by the very same people who claim his name."

"That's not just bad politics," he added. "It is bad theology."

Scarborough makes no claim on being particularly righteous himself. But he said that one thing he remembers from his Baptist upbringing is "Jesus Christ's repeated warnings to his followers to shun the self-righteousness of religious leaders and instead to lead with love."

Like Saletan, Scarborough was also critical of other candidates who "exercised their right to remain silent in the face of Jeffress' outrageous statement."

"What courage," he wrote. "But what's new? For years now, GOP leaders have sat silent as extremists called political rivals everything from 'Nazi' to 'Racist' to 'Marxist.'

"Now we can add 'cultist' to the GOP lexicon."

Adding an LDS perspective to the national conversation on the subject was well-known LDS historian Richard L. Bushman, who appeared on CNN's "John King USA" show to respond to the charges that the LDS Church is a "cult."

" 'Cult' is a very tricky word because it has a kind of a nasty connotation," Bushman said. "It implies brainwashing and extreme behavior of various sorts. But it has technical definitions as well."

Bushman said that the definition Jeffress is using defines the word as "a religion that is founded on a man, rather than a religion founded on Jesus Christ."

"Of course, he is referring to Joseph Smith," Bushman said. "But for Mormons that doesn't quite make sense. That would be like saying that evangelical Christianity is founded on Paul because he preached the Christian gospel on behalf of Jesus Christ. Mormons look upon Joseph Smith in exactly the same way that evangelical Christians look upon Paul, as a spokesman for the Christian gospel."

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What you are seeing now, Bushman said, is "Americans trying to decide if Mormonism is in the realm of acceptable religions."

Although America is a tolerant nation, "there's always been a margin, and if you were beyond that edge then you were not accepted within the general consensus," Bushman said. "Little by little, groups have worked their way into the range of acceptable religions. Catholics and Jews have worked their way into that realm. Mormons and Muslims are still at the edge, and Mormons are working their way in. So I think this little dust-up we've had is just one of the skirmishes along that border."

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com