When Christians thought Mormons were Others, not Brothers,
Their prophets were false, their religion a cult.
Books would portray them as awful unlawful,
And violent riots would sometimes result
Now, the Republicans gather to blather,
To pound on their pulpits, to goad and incite;
But Mormons are, strangely and oddly, now godly,
When allied against the true, atheist blight.
NPR's Double Take 'Toons today got me thinking. If Romney or Huntsman either stand a ghost of a chance in the Republican primaries, among the people they have to thank are the vocal and visible atheists.
The cartoons (available at the link) illustrate a sea-change in religion and politics. The first shows the traditional prejudices against Mormons by evangelical christian Republicans; this prejudice has existed nearly as long as Mormons have. The second shows a very real reason that this established anti-Mormon prejudice is largely fading. Mind you, it doesn't explicitly make that connection, but I want to.
When the Mormon church was young, the religious landscape did not really have to contend with atheists. Sure, we existed, but we were invisible. Religious groups fought against one another, and you were identified by your particular religion--no one was "a believer", they were catholics, lutherans, episcopalians, yadda yadda yadda.
The rise of atheism, though, changed this landscape. It has only been with the recognition of a "non-believer" group (not monolithic by any means, but certainly qualitatively different from any believing group) that there could be a meaningful "believer" group (again, nowhere near monolithic, but sharing a characteristic that was once assumed to be universal).
Mormons were seen as a non-christian cult; some christians still view them this way. But now, thanks in no small part to atheists, Mormons are one of many varieties of christianity, which is one of many varieties of religious belief. And as such, they are (or may be) seen as fit to be elected to public office.
Because they are not atheists.
And that is the new religious landscape.