By Suzanne Sataline
The Wall Street Journal
Mitt Romney's campaign for the presidency brought more attention to the Mormon Church than it has had in years. What the church discovered was not heartening.
Critics of its doctrines and culture launched frequent public attacks. Polling data showed that far more Americans say they'd never vote for a Mormon than those who admitted they wouldn't choose a woman or an African-American.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in late January revealed that 50 percent of Americans said they would have reservations or be "very uncomfortable" about a Mormon as president. That same poll found that 81 percent would be "enthusiastic" or "comfortable" with an African-American and 76 percent with a woman.
The former Massachusetts governor's Mormon faith "was the silent factor in a lot of the decision making by [Christian] evangelicals and others," says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted the poll. The Romney campaign ran into "a religious bias headwind," Hart and his Republican polling partner, Bill McInurff, wrote late last month.
"I don't think that any of us had any idea how much anti-Mormon stuff was out there," said Armand Mauss, a Mormon sociologist who has written extensively about church culture, in an interview last week. "The Romney campaign has given the church a wake-up call. There is the equivalent of anti-Semitism still out there."
For Romney, Super Tuesday Was the End of the Road
On Thursday, Romney was suspending his quest for the Republican nomination, following a poor showing in the "Super Tuesday" contests. Romney made no mention of his religion when he withdrew.
There were many other factors that may have contributed to his failed campaign. He didn't gain sufficient traction among the social conservatives influential to his party. Opponents attacked him, saying he changed his moderate stances to more conservative ones to attract votes, including his position on abortion.
Some observers play down religious bias as a factor. Ken Jennings, a Mormon who was a "Jeopardy!" champion, says anti-Mormon attacks "contributed" to Romney's problems, but weren't the only obstacle. "I suspect there were bigger forces in play than the religion," such as perceptions that Romney had shifted his positions, said Jennings in an interview from his home in Seattle. "There were principled reasons to say, 'I like McCain over Romney.'"
Religion "wasn't a factor in the governor's decision to step aside," says Eric Fehrnstrom, a campaign spokesman. "There was a lot more focus on religion early on in the race, but as people learned more about Gov. Romney, his success as a businessman and as leader of the Olympics, it receded as an issue into the background."
Nevertheless, Romney's campaign exposed a surprisingly virulent strain of anti-Mormonism that had been largely hidden to the general public.
Pundit Rips Mormon Church as a Religion Founded by an 'Anti-American, pro-Slavery Rapist'
In December, political pundit and actor Lawrence O'Donnell Jr. unleashed a tirade on "The McLaughlin Group" television talk show, tearing into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as the Mormon Church is known officially, and into Romney's faith.
"Romney comes from a religion founded by a criminal who was anti-American, pro-slavery, and a rapist. And he comes from that lineage and says, 'I respect this religion fully.'...He's got to answer."
Mormons were outraged. Hundreds complained to the show and on radio talk shows and the Internet, protesting that the remarks about church founder Joseph Smith were bigoted and unfounded. O'Donnell, a former MSNBC commentator who plays a lawyer for polygamists on the HBO drama "Big Love," says he has nothing to apologize for. "Everything I said was true," he says.