The current concern about Romney recalls anxieties about Mormons and Catholics from the nineteenth century, when both churches evoked suspicion. Critics thought of them as “fanatics,” a stereotype applied to Catholics, Mormons, Masons, and Muslims. They feared that leaders of these groups would employ their spiritual authority over blindly loyal followers to magnify their own power. Any prophet claiming to speak for God, they reasoned, must necessarily try to impose his beliefs on everyone else. But this argument, while based on logic, was impervious to fact. The real-world actions of Mormons and Catholics, and their protestations of innocence, meant nothing. ~Prof. Richard Lyman Bushman
It may be worth noting that Prof. Bushman frequently returns to this old charge of fanaticism when discussing this issue. It is something like the lens through which he is viewing the entire controversy over Mormonism in our presidential politics today. It was part of one of the replies (sorry, the TNR overlords have locked up the previously free debate) that he gave to Linker during their online debate. Linker complained that he had never used the word fanatic–while doing everything he could to hint that Mormons were all basically fanatics-in-waiting–but Prof. Bushman had him pretty well cornered. As I noted at the time, Linker was proceeding with a pretty impeccably logical polemic that brought his negative assumptions about the political dangers of Mormonism to their logical conclusions. The only trouble with this was that the actual history, the reality of Mormons in American politics, did not support his nicely designed polemic. Linker was convinced that he had proven his polemical point, and the targets of the polemic were equally convinced that he could not possibly be referring to them because he could not cite a single real episode where his fears of Mormon church interference in politics had been realised.
As I wrote at the time of the debate just a little under two weeks ago:
It seems to me that it is quite one thing to note that Mormons are not Christians and for Christian voters to take that into account when judging a Mormon candidate. It is quite another thing to conjure up rather far-reaching, implausible scenarios of Mormon domination when the historical record suggests that nothing could be further from the minds of the Mormons themselves.
To that I would add that Prof. Bushman’s latest article is very good but ultimately ends up targeting a kind of anti-Mormon criticism that barely exists anymore. The concern of secularists who are anxious about a Mormon President is much more basic: they don’t trust anyone who believes as divinely revealed things they regard as patently absurd. There is virtually no reasoning with such a view, since every attempt to show reasonableness or coherence within a religious framework will simply leave such critics cold. Yet the Weisbergs of the world do not fear rule from Salt Lake City–they fear giving power to someone who thinks that the Lamanites actually existed. Other opposition to Mormonism is of a fairly different nature as well. The concern of most Christian voters who are put off by Romney’s Mormonism is not that Mormons are “fanatics” as such or that they are liable to follow the orders of their church authorities with blind zeal, but that they are Mormons in the first place. It is a concern about what kind of symbolism and identity they are willing to endorse, and whether Mormons fit within their Christian identity. Pretty plainly, a sizeable number of Christians hold that they do not fit.
This should not distress true-believing Mormons, as I have said in the past, since they claim to be the true successor to the Church of the Apostles and view all others as frauds. Given such a view, it is inevitable that Christians would consider Mormon and Christian identity to be mutually exclusive, just as Mormons, if they are serious about their founding claims, must see their true “Christian” identity and our “apostate” identity to be mutually exclusive.