confronting intolerance

I fear that Robert Jeffress’ recent comments are a harbinger of things to come — the public expression of intolerance and bigotry. Now, had this happened against Jews, or gays, or Muslims, or women, or Lations, (that is, “you should vote for Perry over X person because X belongs to _______ group”) I suspect there would have been more rage on the part of the left. But I feel there has been tremendous silence on this issue, and an unwillingness to confront this kind of prejudice. Some of this is no doubt because many on the left are probably happy to see infighting on the right, on the assumption that it weakens them. Some, I suspect, is because of anti-Mormon sentiment. This, after all, is the church that has lobbied against gay marriage, and is seen as being rather conservative. But it is quite a different thing to claim we should confront positions we disagree with than we should not support people because they are members of some group. It is perfectly acceptable to not support Romney for his politics, should you disagree with them. But not confronting and condemning intolerance — even if it is against a group or person we don’t feel a particularly strong affinity with — is a dangerous precedent.

33 thoughts on “confronting intolerance”

  1. you tell it, brother! Honestly, I think that there is way too much acceptance of both expressions of group intolerance and ad hominem attack with which the left is even complicit as well as uncritical.


  2. I think this might be part of a larger conversation about the overall response to religiosity, particularly within sociology. But I’m not up for that right now… some day soon.


  3. Shamus: What if membership in this group influences or underpins political positions and ideas, either explicitly or latently? It’s no accident that Utah and Idaho are two of the reddest states in the union, and to my knowledge, Romney’s track record doesn’t seem to stray much from church positions (coincidentally or not). The LDS Church continues to espouse sexist, anti-gay and anti-intellectual tenets. Just because these beliefs are ensconced in a large ecclesiastical organization shouldn’t make them sacrosanct, or inherently deserving of ‘tolerance.’ In a vacuum, tolerance is a virtue, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the appropriate response. Further, from a status-characteristics standpoint, I personally don’t like the implications of someone who voluntarily and zealously associates with this group, rising to the highest office in the US (at least not without distancing themselves from the more objectionable tenets of the LDS Church and organizational activism).

    The issue of how faith influences politics (and, as you suggest, how it may interact with academic work) is hardly confined to Mormonism, nor are Mormons an entirely homogenous group. However, Romney is bringing these issues to the forefront, especially since the LDS Church strongly endorses a number of beliefs that even the median voter in this very Christian country (let alone the readership of this blog) does not hold.

    Should we be tolerant of intolerant organizations and beliefs? I think there’s an infinite regress here that needs to be dealt with.


    1. It seems we might apply this logic to Obama, then, who presented himself as a deeply religious candidate, guided by the power of prayer, for whom God shows the way. See:

      Perhaps, then, the right was fully justified in brining up his pastor, Jeremiah Wright? Because Obama had explicitly made religion a part of his campaign, we best know what his pastor is teaching, particularly if he is guided to make decisions on the basis of prayer and God?


      1. That’s a bit of a red herring. You can’t make conclusions about a politician (especially with Obama) based on how they marketed themselves to centrist Christian voters. If anything, Obama needed to strongly signal his Christianity to win centrist and socially conservative support, and harness the organizational strength of Black church leaders. His abandonment of Rev. Wright suggests that Obama’s religiosity has a large politically expedient element to it.

        Further, Wright’s church is not a large, hierarchical organization with the ideological and political baggage to the extent that LDS Church has. I don’t buy the moral relativist argument that if we’re tolerant of Rev. Wright, we have to be tolerant of the LDS Church. One is a greater evil than the other. If any politician willingly associates with intolerant and anti-intellectual groups, then we should be wary. As Phil suggests, the onus is on the politician to prove their work is separate from their personal beliefs (although, zealously contributing to intolerant groups, even on a personal level, is a troublesome market signal to me).


      2. @hidinggrad: you could replace “Romney” with “Obama” in the first paragraph of your post.

        “You can’t make conclusions about Romney based on how he markets himself to conservative Christian voters. Romney needs to strongly signal his Christianity to win centrist and socially conservative support, and harness the organizational strength of church leaders.”

        Indeed, you might to better to judge Romney on his record — as you would Obama. Which is what I’m proposing.

        As for Mormonism — the Catholic Church is a similarly structure organization (hierarchical, with ideological and political baggage). I do not support Romney — indeed I vehemently oppose him. I do not know enough about Mormonism to say anything informed about that church — those things I do know: it’s position on gays, for example, I generally disagree with. But religious populations are varied, and their expressions polysemic. There are right-wing Mormons, and left-wing Mormons. There are those who beliefs align strongly with the official positions of the church, and those whose beliefs do not. So to judge Mormons as if they were all the same is intolerance. They same applies to Jews, Catholics, Muslims, or atheists (I fall into this last category).

        My position is fairly simple: that we judge people on the basis of their positions and actions, and not on the basis of their associations whereby we ascribe positions to them. The former can lead to contention, condemnation, and denouncement. That’s fine. But the latter is intolerance. And I feel that is not.


      3. Of course you judge people on their records. However, you’re overstating the heterogeneity of the politics of the Mormon Church (which you admitted you don’t know much about) and its practitioners, at least relative to other popular religions. Catholic legislators are much more likely to vote against social conservative policies. I’d argue that this in part because Catholicism isn’t nearly as hierarchical or demands the kind of zealous commitment that the LDS Church does. Were there meaningful “Mormons against Prop 8” social movements? Are there substantial efforts to broaden tightly-defined essentialist gender roles within the LDS Church and most Mormon families?

        I doubt few here would be so intellectually lazy and crass to categorically reject someone because of their faith. However, for the reasons expressed by myself and others in this thread, in Romney’s case, I think it’s a relevant and important piece of information. While Romney’s opponents may use his faith to fuel dirty, gutter-politics tactics, I have no problems with negative status characteristics being associated with his Mormon faith. The LDS Church has earned this stigma through its recent and contemporary ideologies and actions. If Romney is any different, he needs to prove it.


      4. @hidinggrad — I don’t think that you know what you are talking about with respect to the heterogeneity of political positions of LDS members considering the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid is also a committed Mormon that has openly stated that his religion influences his politics. I don’t agree with much of what Harry Reid does, and a great deal of good legislation has gone to his chamber to die, but it is disingenuous to argue that religious diversity does not exist considering the second most important member of Romney’s opposing party is also a member of the religion.


    2. @hidinggrad: There are two incompatible claims here.

      1.) “Of course you judge people on their records.”

      2.) “I have no problems with negative status characteristics being associated with his Mormon faith. The LDS Church has earned this stigma…”

      We might summarize this as, “We judge people by their records, unless they’re Mormon, in which case judge them by that until they prove us otherwise wrong.” And I have an issue with that.


      1. Those points are completely compatible. Romney is willingly and zealously associating with a group with some serious ideological and political baggage. As OW notes, groups have collective identities. The LDS Church has strategically chosen and broadcast this identity rather clearly.

        Once again, OW put it well: “If you want to keep membership in a group but distance yourself from its public stances, you have to expect to work to explain that distinction to others. If you continue to provide support to an organization that takes public actions that others find reprehensible, you should expect that support to matter to people.”

        Finally, I don’t appreciate the straw-man argument that you ascribed to me. Anybody who willingly claims membership in a group with serious ideological baggage – whether it’s the Mormon Church or anything else – without making efforts to distance themselves from those issues, deserves to be looked at critically.


      2. replying to hidinggrad: Since you pulled me into it, I should note that religious affiliations do have a somewhat different character. It is unfair to expect people to respond to everything that any member of their ethnic group or gender does, because these are ascribed characteristics. Religion is also somewhat ascribed: people are born into a particular tradition and the culture and practices and spirituality of that tradition can have meaning to you whether or not you agree with the leadership of an organization. Expecting someone to quit a religion because of its politics is more like expecting them to disown their grandmother for bad politics than it is like quitting a discriminatory country club.

        I was critical of Shamus’s analysis but not exactly along your axis. The fact is that the religious right DOES exclude Jews, Muslims Buddhists, liberal Christians, most Black Christians, as well as atheists from its support list. Many conservative Evangelicals don’t think Catholics are real Christians, either. The left does not criticize that, either. That’s where Shamus’s analysis falls apart. Left-wing commentators do not say: “Right wing Christian groups ought to do outreach to Jews and atheists” because it takes for granted that an exclusionary Christian group does not include non-Christians. Groups that cut themselves off on theological grounds from others who share similar political/social views are obviously not focusing only politics. I am deeply frightened of that exclusionary us vs them world view, but I don’t theorizing it at individual-level “intolerance” and chastising the left for not speaking up in defense of poor Mitt Romney is the right analysis of the issue.

        I’m old enough to remember the 1960 election, when many Protestants had a very real concern that the country would be run by the Pope if JFK were elected.


      3. um, I realized I’d better clarify that the “very real” concern was that they really felt/believed it, NOT that there was an objective risk that a Catholic president would take orders from Rome. But many Protestants said “Catholics have to obey the Pope. That is their religion.” (This was a big deal because to a Protestant that is the most important marker of our difference from Catholics.)

        More broadly, I’m sort of worried that my critique of Shamus’s theorizing might seem to give comfort to people who have overly-stereotypic views of religious people, and certainly appreciate Mike3550’s intervention.

        And I also hope this comment shows up in a reasonable place, as I’ve lost track of where I clicked when I started it.


      4. @OW: You’re right that religion is somewhat an ascribed trait, although many people choose to join or leave faiths in their adult lives. However, I don’t think being born into a faith entirely absolves people of the responsibility to act better or challenge their ascribed faith, particularly when it promotes questionable or reprehensible beliefs.


      5. OW, re “real concern”: I too am old enough to remember 1960, and my impression was that the “he’ll be taking orders from the Pope” people didn’t really believe it. It was just one more thing they could say to justify not voting for a Catholic. If you could have convinced them that JFK would not in the least be taking orders from the Pope, would they have changed their votes? I don’t think so. Bigotry is not about policy.


      6. HG: You can say the same about people born affluent and White. Perhaps even more so. And I think you should reconsider the word “beliefs” in your sentence. It is actions that are often reprehensible and the world of politics ought to focus on actions and rights, not mind control.

        Which is not to deny that a hostile response is the most normal reaction to a group that advocates the restriction of your rights or that says that your social group is immoral or wrong.

        My favorite exchange of this type involves people who get offended at being called “homophobic,” claiming that it is offensive and stereotyping them to call them homophobic just because they say homosexuality is wrong. I think that if you attack somebody, you should expect to get attacked back. The problem is when you are so wrapped up in your own view that you can’t even imagine how other people see things.

        But, back to the merits or not of Shamus’s original point, calling specific people homophobic or whatever in response to anti-gay actions and politics seems fair game to me, while constructions that, say, call Mormons as a group homophobic go overboard, even as we have a great deal of sociology and social psychology that tells us why this is a natural cognitive/emotional response.

        Another thing you (HG) are not noticing is that, to religious people, there is a very important distinction between a “faith,” which is about you and God, and a particular religious organization, which almost all faithful people agree is a human construction capable of error. Your language sounds like you are attacking people for believing in God, not for political support for anti-gay measures.

        And, Shamus, I still think you needed a much better example if you were trying to chastise the left for something. Although I guess HG gave you some examples of the sort of thing you were thinking about.


      7. @OW I was unaware of the connotations of using the word “faith.” Thank you for pointing that out. In no way did I intend to criticize people for believing in God. However, faithful deference to a religious organization engaging in reprehensible actions remains problematic to me.

        As for beliefs, I agree that people should have autonomy over their own minds. While actions are underpinned by beliefs, people should be judged by their actions (which is relatively easy to do in the public sphere of politics).


    3. mikenumbers: Like most things in sociology, this is an empirical question. One exceptional case does not necessarily imply heterogeneity. Reid also supported DOMA and believes in the “marriage is between a man and a woman.” Also, differences between Republicans and Democrats are not always terribly stark.

      A cursory Googling suggests that 11/14 of voting LDS members in the Senate and Congress are Republican, and only one of the three Democrats (Udall) seems to be consistently socially liberal. I realize it’s a small N, but this strikes me as not a coincidence.

      Regardless, as a voter, if the actions and choices of someone (perhaps like Udall) distinguish themselves from the official and mainstream positions of their clergy, I’d be happy to vote for them, regardless of what their faith is. However, the influence of religion on political positions and actions remains a legitimate concern for other politicians.

      Political sociology isn’t my area, but there’s probably germane research on the influence of religion on political positioning and voting records.


      1. hidinggrad: you’re right, one case does not prove a trend; however, the fact that the second most powerful person of a party that largely, though not entirely, stands for the positions that you abhor from the LDS church is a pretty powerful one.

        A quick Googling reveals that there are indeed Mormons who opposed Prop. 8.

        I also fail to see how I can give credibility to your claim:

        Catholic legislators are much more likely to vote against social conservative policies. I’d argue that this in part because Catholicism isn’t nearly as hierarchical or demands the kind of zealous commitment that the LDS Church does.

        when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now of course Pope Benedict XVI, banned John Kerry from receiving communion for his views.

        I am not an apologizer for LDS beliefs and find many of them not only wrong for a society ruled by secular law but against the basic principles of Christianity. I also think the same about Catholics, Southern Baptists, and fundamentalist Episcopalians/Anglicans. But none of these would exclude me from voting for a candidate based on their religion, especially since Romney has made every effort to keep the topic of religion out of the debate. We can argue about whether that is due to political expediency or commitment to secular rule (which, he didn’t seem to have a problem doing in Massachusetts when he implemented the pilot version of what is now federal healthcare law), but the fact remains that he is not Michelle Bachman or George W. Bush proclaiming their religious bonafides.

        It seems you have a particular axe to grind about Mormons. If your claim is that religion plays an outsized role in American politics, then I’m on board. If, however, your claim is that the LDS is worse than other mainstream religions, I fail to see the empirical evidence to support your claim.


      2. Sorry, “stands for the positions that you abhor from the LDS church” is terrible writing. I meant: “opposes positions that you abhor from the LDS church.” In other words, Harry Reid is one of the leaders of a party that stands largely against the socially conservative policies of the LDS Church.


      3. I don’t think Reid’s stature in the Democratic Party is necessarily a great index of diversity, especially since Reid is hardly a radical. The Democratic Party has social conservative and right-leaning factions, and the line between Republicans and Democrats is often slight.

        Sure, there were Mormons who opposed Prop 8. There were also inner-city Chicago African-Americans who voted for McCain. My point was, dissent was not visible, meaningful or widespread. Meanwhile, the LDS Church’s organization (who were called by desperate “Yes” organizers, who were trailing in the polls relatively late in the campaign) and volunteers played a big role in tipping the vote to “Yes.”

        Also, while Ratzinger used Kerry to grandstand, he also wasn’t attempting to deploy the resources of the Catholic Church to repress the rights of others. Institutionally, the Mormon Church strongly endorses anti-gay and gender essentialist doctrines (and as Phil points out, racist ones recently as well), and has actually engaged in political action to further these ideas. Thus, I don’t think it’s a radical hypothesis that its members (including those who serve in public office) tend to be ideologically aligned. If someone can show that the “Mormon” dummy variable doesn’t predict voting patterns or ideological spectrum locations of politicians, particularly relative to other religions, I’d be open to it, but surprised.

        Regardless, I’ve been drawn into this discussion that strayed from the initial point I intended to make. If a public figure willingly associates (even if you might have been quasi-ascribed) with a group promoting intolerant beliefs and engaging in reprehensible political action, without at least distancing themselves from those actions, there is good reason for concern. As as institution, the LDS Church has a lot to answer for. Even if some of its practitioners aren’t necessarily quite as militant and socially conservative as official doctrines, that shouldn’t inure them from criticism, especially when their actions suggest apathy or complicity, at the very least. These issues are hardly confined to Mormonism, but it’s the topic du jour.


  4. What is it to “belong to a group”? Is religion an ascriptive trait?

    I have no problem with people who don’t support Romney because he is a Mormon, which he has made clear is a conscious choice on his part, and part of his public/political identity (and same goes for any other religion or non-religion). That’s not (necessarily) a reflection of intolerance or bigotry.

    If you oppose Mormonism because they banned Blacks before 1978, that seems reasonable. If you oppose them because they’re not Christian enough, that’s just the way religion goes. Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t most religions say the other religions are wrong? If you think that’s intolerance, fine, but then you’re going to have to speak out against a lot of religious groups — and then that’s intolerance.


  5. To oppose the official position of the Mormon church is one thing. But to judge people who are Mormons on the basis of those positions is quite another.

    Mormons did not “ban Blacks” – they banned their ordination. Problematic? Very much so. But what is your magic date by which we can hold organizations accountable? But let’s extend this logic… Would it be reasonable for me to judge all Catholics because of the church’s position on gays or women’s ordination (it is very important to note that THIS is the logic of Jeffress’ position: we should oppose ALL Mormons because they are not Christians)? I hardly think so. Why? Because Catholics vary in their position. Same goes for Mormons. As for Romney’s positions — I think they are more opportunistic than anything else. Look at his record in Massachusetts, and his positions now.

    They’ve changed. Why? Not because he’s a Mormon. I suspect because he’s gone form being governor of massachusetts to national candidate. Can we judge him on these policy positions? Absolutely. But because he’s a Mormon? This is the heart of prejudice: judging people not on the basis of what they believe and do, but on the basis of what we ascribe to them.

    Finally, again, thinking counterfactually, I would ask us if the left would accept this from other groups. Islam — which has its issues with gays and women? (“We can’t vote for X because he’s a Muslim”)… Catholicism or Orthodox Jews (ditto with the issues)? We’d be vocally enraged. But Mormons? Nope, that’s perfectly fine.


    1. People on the left regularly vote for candidates that espouse very strong religious commitments, while the most don’t hold strong religious commitments.

      The candidates supported by the left typically explain clearly their commitments and how their political views differ (or don’t) from the organizations they are part of.

      This Fascist Left argument is silly. The only place it has traction is in academia. I hope we can move on.


      1. From Wikipedia:

        “Left-wing fascism and left fascism are terms used by a few writers to describe tendencies in left-wing politics that contradict or violate the progressive ideals with which the Left is usually associated.”

        Sorry if that is not the theme of this discussion.


    2. I agree. I wouldn’t oppose a candidate because of their membership in a religion. But if their religion is part of their campaign I would like to hear from them how they reconcile their positions with those of the institution or its dominant aspects, agree or disagree.

      It’s like social scientists. If you’re religious, that’s your business. If your religion is part of your science, maybe the burden is on you to explain how the two fit. (For example, if you believe in a god that determines everything, why conduct statistical tests?)


  6. I agree with Philips’s 6:44a comment re: the need to reconcile the two if religion is part of one’s science or campaign.

    Re: Shakha’s original post, the subject of Jeffress’ remarks was the Mormon church. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” yadda yadda notwithstanding – sorry, I have no intention of coming to the defense of an intolerant group that has injected itself so thoroughly into politics, e.g. Prop 8 in CA.


  7. I’ve half-finished several comments on this tread but lost them when something interrupted. If you see this, I wasn’t interrupted this time. I think several things are being confounded, in particular the specifics of the Jeffress comment vs whatever attributions are being made about “intolerance” on the left.

    For Jeffress & that ilk, the desire is to have in power people who are part of their “team” which they define theologically. Saying that the LDS does not meet their definition of a “true Christian” is really an objective statement about the theological positions of the different groups. They are bloc voting theologically. I’m not very happy with that because I oppose what they stand for, but urging them to vote for people based on their actual political positions and not their theology is rather missing the point of their position.

    That situation is analytically different from using group membership as a criterion. Again, here, I am certainly comfortable taking a person’s party affiliation into account in deciding whom to vote for, and I think not doing so is politically naive. Party blocks matter and “vote for the person not the party” is politically stupid, in my opinion. So I don’t a priori see that group membership should not be factored into a voting decision. And I do consider some memberships to be stigmatizing: I would not vote for a member of the KKK or the neo-Nazis no matter what positions they advocate.

    It is of course incorrect to attribute homogeneity of individual opinion to any group, including religious groups, but groups do have public collective identities. One cannot function in a social world without making assumptions based on those identities and I don’t think this is “intolerance.”

    If you want to keep membership in a group but distance yourself from its public stances, you have to expect to work to explain that distinction to others. If you continue to provide support to an organization that takes public actions that others find reprehensible, you should expect that support to matter to people. Surely Americans traveling overseas during the Bush administration can report a large number of encounters of that character. I don’t think people overseas were wrong to blame Americans in general for our policies, even if some of us opposed them.

    That said, I do urge folks to try to learn more about the nuances of opinion among people you disagree with. For one thing, it is really interesting.


  8. JL: well I was in the 6th grade at the time so I was not a well-trained observer, but I don’t think it was just cynical and I do think Protestants who had genuine hostility to the Catholic religion on religious grounds ended up voting for JFK. I’m not sure what your background is, but I think you may underestimate the extent of misinformation people have about other people’s faiths and the way they can be oversimplified and stereotyped without necessarily invoking hostility. My mother clearly (if somewhat inaccurately) explained what was wrong with Catholic doctrine and why Catholics should be Protestant if they really wanted to be Christian, but also clearly explained to me how to behave politely at prayer when I had dinner at my Catholic friends’ houses.


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