For many Americans, Mormons are scary, or weird, or at least not the sort of folk you’d want marrying your first lady. Last year a Gallup poll found that 22 percent of the country would not support a Mormon candidate for president. MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell claimed in early April that Mormonism “was created by a guy in upstate New York in 1830 when he got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it.” Newt Gingrich had to fire his Iowa political director for describing rival candidate Mitt Romney’s religion as “the cult of Mormon.” Texas Gov. Rick Perry had to do some public squirming when a prominent Baptist backer, the Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, announced that Romney is “not a Christian” and that Mormonism “has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity.”
But as Senior Editor Jesse Walker explains, all of this obscures something important: By historical standards, Mormonism enjoys an amazing level of acceptance in America today. The Republican Party, an organization whose first presidential platform denounced Mormon polygamy as a “relic of barbarism” comparable to slavery, is about to nominate a Mormon bishop as its presidential candidate. And while you can still hear strange conspiracy theories about the church today, we are a long way from the 19th century, when the popular perception of the faith featured a wild mélange of mind control, assassinations, secret sexual lodges, and plots to subvert the republic.