Religion, Race, and Bigotry

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When discussing the subject of bigotry, it is helpful to discriminate (no pun intended). It's more difficult to do so when reporting on poll results, and the latest attempt, in The Washington Post, shows just how difficult it can be.

The headline of the piece, 'Mormons, African Americans Face Substantial Prejudice, Poll Finds,' is part of the problem. The poll's findings are as follows:

"Sizable pockets of voters say they would be uncomfortable with a close family member marrying someone who is black or Mormon. Twenty percent of voters report discomfort with the idea of a Mormon marrying into their immediate family; 14 percent say the same for African Americans."

Part of the problem is the word "discomfort," which does not really tell us much. But the bigger issue is that not wanting someone in your family to marry a member of a particular religious group is different than not wanting a relative to marry, say, a black person. In the former case, you are judging  people by his/her actions, rather than his/her skin color. Moreover, I would imagine a lot of Christians would be uncomfortable with relatives marrying Jews or Muslims or Hindus. In some cases this is likely bigotry, but it also may have to do with ensuring that the next generation of your family carries on your religious traditions, or other such considerations. Nothing similar applies in the case of race.

One gets the sense, reading the piece, that "discomfort" with a religion, or disliking a religion, is--for the author--equivalent to bigotry. Thus:

The share of all Americans with an “unfavorable” impression of the Mormon Church has dropped eight percentage points from 2007 when Romney first sought the Republican presidential nomination to 31 percent in the new poll. But positive ratings remain at 39 percent, hardly changed from 42 percent five years ago. Instead, more Americans express “no opinion” when asked about the Mormon faith. It is unclear what impact such lingering discomfort is having on voters’ decision-making. Prejudice is difficult to capture accurately in polling data; voters are often reluctant to express views they perceive as socially unacceptable.

The clear implication here is that having an "unfavorable" impression of the Mormon Church is a sign of bigotry. It need be nothing of the sort. Surely other, more established religions would poll better on this question, and surely Mormons do face more bigotry than many other faiths. But people are allowed to have negative opinions of (sorry) man-made institutions. Disliking people who happen to be born with dark skin is entirely different.

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