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Bonker: Religious Intolerance a Political Problem for Romney but a Bigger Problem for America

One reason Mitt Romney is going nowhere in the polls is religious discrimination, a problem he has had difficulty addressing — and that has proved to be a problem that crosses party lines.

While evangelical Christians are often pinpointed as the group most likely to oppose a Mormon candidate, a Gallup poll from June showed that while 18 percent of Republicans said they would not support a Mormon for president, the number was one-third higher — 27 percent — for Democrats.

The issue reared its head again this week when the other leading contender for the GOP nomination, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), saw his Iowa political director resign after calling the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a “cult.”

This is unfortunate in that religious freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution and that one’s religious faith should not be a factor when seeking public office.

It is certainly not a factor in the other branch of government. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is also a Mormon who happens to preside over the Senate without any hint that his religion is an issue, nor does it come into play with another prominent U.S. Senator, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a Mormon who for many years chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. Currently six Mormons serve in the Senate.

We’ve come a long way since 1903, when the Utah Legislature elected Reed Smoot to be the first Mormon to be seated in the Senate. But when Smoot arrived in Washington in early 1904 with every expectation that he would be sworn in, he instead spent the next four years on the sidelines while a Senate committee investigated the charges against him, prompted by a nationally organized campaign by church leaders who passionately opposed the seating of any Mormon, however deserving, in Congress.

The issue that sparked the controversy in the religious community was polygamy, a practice that was officially abandoned by the LDS church in 1890 but persisted well into the 20th century. The head of the church, Joseph F. Smith, cohabited with his many wives and fathered 11 children, which outraged Christians leaders who organized a national campaign to prevent such behavior from being officially sanctioned by the Senate.

But it was not only polygamy. The attorney, representing those protesting Smoot’s admittance to the Senate, argued that the real danger was the Mormon take on revelation, which more deeply symbolized the distrust of the LDS church in the American Protestant establishment at the time.

According to historian Kathleen Flake, the Senate deliberation explored every peculiarity of Mormonism, emphasizing the polygamous family structure, ritual worship practices, “secret oaths,” economic communalism and theocratic politics. Overflow crowds filled the committee room and Senate gallery, all of which was vigorously covered by journalists and cartoonists that would be the envy of today’s TV talk shows.

On the last day of the Senate deliberations, Sen. Fred Dubois (R-Idaho), who led the attacks against Smoot, charged that the Mormon doctrine commanded the “Saints to take unto themselves a multiplicity of wives, limited in number only be the measures of their desires.”

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