This is not a column about Mitt Romney’s results in yesterday’s Iowa caucuses. This is a column about the bigotry that has followed Romney since he became the GOP’s leading light. It is also about “All-American Muslim,” a television show that, as the Florida Family Association, a conservative advocacy group, put it, “profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish.” This column is about the kinds of people we are allowed to hate.

Over and over when asked who they intended to support in the presidential primary race, a certain kind of Republican voter answered, “Anyone but Romney.” The spectacular, successive rises and falls of Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich again make sense only as manifestations of that sentiment.

The last candidate who generated similar personal animosity was Hillary Clinton. A huge part of Barack Obama’s appeal in 2007 was that he was not Clinton. Romney’s flaws as a candidate — flat delivery and a mixed partisan record — are very different from what led Democrats away from Clinton.

Romney fits the Republican nominee mold perfectly. He’s white, older than he looks, all-American handsome and fabulously wealthy. Not only is he a successful hostile takeover artist who saved the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, he also ran Massachusetts as governor from 2003-2007 — a notorious den of viper-Democrats, genus Kennedy — and goes to church every week. His father ran Michigan as governor in the 1960s— a notorious den of viper-Democrats, genus United Auto Workers — and never worked on Sundays. None of these explains why “anyone but Romney” has been the most popular choice in the Republican primary race since it began.

Romney’s problem is his religion. It’s his Mormon faith, and the fear that, were he elected, he would take orders from Salt Lake City. That is the motivation behind “anyone but Romney,” which is not the same thing as being a real supporter of one of the other contenders. A certain kind of Republican supports Ron Paul, and voters for whom the evangelical faith is a necessary precondition to public office have their own candidates. “Anyone but Romney” is an unattached camp.

One doesn’t often hear people say, “I won’t vote for a Mormon,” or, “I wouldn’t vote for an African-American,” but studies have shown that people rarely share that kind of sentiment with pollsters, so polls of attitudes toward religious groups under-report the degree of animosity the public feels toward them.

A comprehensive Pew Research Center study of public sentiment around religion released last year asked respondents to rate how warmly they felt towards various religious groups. Those polled placed Mormons well below the national average, while Muslims scored even lower. These are significant divergences — evangelical Christians and atheists, objects of scorn in their own right, scored only slightly below the national average.

Surveys like that paint in broad strokes, but they help us understand that religious prejudice is alive in America. Lowe’s, the home-repair giant, and Kayak.com, a travel website, were among dozens of businesses who shamefully decided to pull their ads from “All-American Muslim” after being pressured by the Florida Family Association conservative groups who objected to the idea that a Muslim could be an American. To call Obama a “secret Muslim,” as certain conservatives do, is to suggest that all Muslims support terrorism. And the furor over the misnamed “Ground Zero Mosque” in 2010 makes sense as a manifestation of the ridiculous assumption that most Muslims sympathize with al-Qaeda.

Religious intolerance matters today, even though Romney doesn’t talk about it and no one is boycotting Lowe’s. But there is hope for a more tolerant future.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy’s victory in the presidential election proved that Americans could put aside their distrust of Catholics and put one in office. Obama is living proof that the most insidious form of American bigotry has weakened. Romney’s performance last night is a sign that another marginalized group is entering that same main stream. One wonders how long it will be before Muslims, too, can be accepted for who they are, and the phrase “All-American Muslim” strikes no one as a contradiction in terms.

Seth Soderborg can be reached at sethns@umich.edu

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