The take-home message of Mitt Romney's recent speech on religion and politics was pretty clear: I may be a Mormon, but at least I'm not an atheist.
Romney sought to strengthen his advantage as a presidential candidate known for being religious while assuaging the concerns of Americans who are reluctant to vote for a Mormon. He did so by reinforcing the public's longstanding prejudice against unbelievers, arguing that religion -- any religion -- is preferable to no religion at all.
According to an August survey by the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life, nearly half of those who express an opinion describe Romney as "very religious," and "most Americans continue to say that it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs." At the same time, one in four Americans say a candidate's Mormonism would make them less likely to vote for him, and this aversion is especially strong among voters for whom a candidate's religiosity matters most: More than a third of white Republican evangelicals, who play an important role in choosing their party's nominee, are leery of Mormon candidates.
But the same survey that highlighted this problem also suggested a solution. "Being a Mormon is viewed as far less of a liability for a presidential candidate than not believing in God or being a Muslim," the Pew Center noted.
Bashing Muslims would fly in the face of the distinction President Bush always has drawn between violent jihadists and their moderate co-religionists. In his speech, Romney took the same tack, condemning "radical Islamists" while admiring ordinary Muslims' "commitment to frequent prayer" (along with Catholics' "profound ceremony," Pentecostals' "tenderness of spirit," Lutherans' "confident independence" and Jews' "ancient traditions").
Romney made no such distinctions in his treatment of atheists, who get even worse poll ratings than Muslims. While "45 percent express reluctance about voting for a Muslim," the Pew Center reports, "61 percent say they would be less likely to support a candidate who does not believe in God."
In a December 6-9 Gallup poll, nearly half of the respondents endorsed an even stronger anti-atheist statement, saying they would refuse to vote for "a generally well-qualified person" of their own party "who happened to be an atheist." The corresponding number for a Mormon candidate was 17 percent, about the same as before Romney's speech.