There’s a Word for That, and the Word is Bigot

I don't much care when extremists attack other extremists. Fundamentalists can duke it out with other fundamentalists all they want. I'm barely paying attention, much less joining in. But when people with extreme religious viewpoints manage to break through to the rest of us and pelt us with their fear-mongering messages, my hackles go up. All of a sudden it’s not just fundamentalists saying stupid shit. It’s normal people, too. And, oh, the shit people say.

Take Mitt Romney and his Mormonism.

By a show of hands, who doesn’t think a Mormon should run the country? Anyone?

No?

Good. Because there’s a word for that kind of thinking, and the word is bigot.

It’s the same word we use when someone doesn’t want a person of another color, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or age running the country. It’s a pretty sucky word, actually. And it would be good if we’d all stay the f away from it.

I’m not suggesting anyone vote for Mitt Romney. Good Lord Jesus, no. But should we not vote for him because he belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? Because he believes things we don’t? Because fundamentalist LDS sects (to which Romney does not even belong) do and say some ridiculous things? Of course not.

There are legitimate reasons to vote for a politician, or against a politician, and rarely is religion one of them. To be honest, I can’t figure out why religion plays a part in our elections at all. Scratch that: I TOTALLY understand why. Because fundamentalists insist on it; because, to fundamentalists, religion is the only thing that matters. But they are such a small percentage of our country, these fundamentalists. Why are the rest of us so quick to draw conclusions, either positive or negative, based on a one-word label? It’s not as though religion and political ideology are automatically correlated. Members of a single church or synagogue or mosque may hold completely different political views, and often do.

It’s true that religion may inform a person’s politics. I won’t deny that. But it’s equally true that a person’s politics may be informed by ethnicity, geography, class, experience, upbringing and dozens of other factors. To connect religious beliefs and political opinions as though they are interlaced strands of DNA is misguided at best. And yet religion is used to garner political support all the time. And often, as in Romney’s case, it’s used to garner opposition, too.

A 2011 Survey of American Values by the Public Religion Research Institute found that two-thirds of voters thought it very important or somewhat important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs. Fifty percent (half!) of Democratic voters reported feeling at least somewhat uncomfortable with a Mormon serving as president — compared to 36 pecent of Republican voters and 38 percent of Independent voters.)

Why is that?

Is it because we voters assume politicians are more likely to make decisions we like if they are similar to us religiously?

Is it because we fear politicians will use their positions to push their religion onto the American public?

Or is it because religion is an easy target? Hey, I oppose Romney anyway; I might as well play the Mormon card.

It just doesn't add up. Look at a candidate's voting record. Study the candidate's ideas and goals. See how the candidate reacts under pressure. Look for evidence of bad moral character: cheating, lying, secrecy. Make sure the candidate doesn't pander to special interest groups you oppose. All of these things are relevant. How and whether a person prays, and to whom? Not so much.

One of the most conservative people I’ve ever met is an atheist. One of the most liberal is a Catholic. And one of the nicest? A Mormon.

The fact is that when you distrust people from other religions simply because they identify as such, you are proving that either you don’t understand much about that religion, or you don’t understand that religious people can be religious in different ways. As an atheist myself, I can tell you that I identify more often with open-minded Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hinduus — not to mention Buddhists — than I do with militant atheists intent on eradicating religion.

I don’t claim to be the poster child for tolerance. I have struggled with my biases in the past, and still do sometimes. (Don’t even get me started on Scientology.) But the more I write about religion, and lack of religion, the more I realize that tolerance is an umbrella we need to be carrying at all times.

You never know when you're going to need it.