Imagine if there was a candidate for the presidency, the highest and most powerful office in the United States, and that he or she once held an official position in a religious order with which they were still very closely involved.
Imagine if that same candidate was raised to be one of the “elect,” with special obligations and a “divine” destiny to ensure that his religion saved America when its Constitution was “hanging by a thread.”
Imagine if this candidate for President belonged to a religion which long argued that black people were judged by God to be “cowards” who were not worthy of true “salvation.” Consequently, black people were destined for servitude and second class citizenship relative to white folks, even in the afterlife.
Finally, imagine if this same religion held such beliefs until 1978—not a century ago, or two hundred years ago—but less than 40 years in the recent past.
We have such a candidate today. His name is Mitt Romney.
Pluralism and tolerance are wonderful values for a society to embrace. Although the United States has been far from perfect in this regard, a belief that our differences can also be a source of strength is part of our national creed.
However, an embrace of diversity and pluralism should not prevent us from asking hard questions about which values ought to be encouraged, and if there are some beliefs and habits that are actually antithetical to our democratic project.
As the American people decide upon their next president in the months and days leading up to November’s election, these questions are made even more important.
Americans do not usually like talking publicly about religion and politics because both are understood by many people to be private matters. However, this anxiety should not stop us from asking basic questions when a concern arises that a candidate’s religion may complicate their loyalty to the Constitution, or make it either impossible or difficult for them to treat all Americans equally regardless of race, creed, or color.
We may look back and shake our heads at the following examples now, but at the time the following concerns were treated (however problematically) as fair and reasonable. Most famously, during the early 1960s then candidate John F. Kennedy had to answer questions about his loyalty to the Catholic Church and the Pope--and if these obligations would interfere with the responsibilities and obligations that come with being President of the
United States of America.
In 2008, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was almost derailed by his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright because the American people were not familiar with Black Liberation Theology and the prophetic, social justice message which is common to many African American churches. As such, President Obama had to answer some difficult questions about how Reverend Wright’s “radical” message impacted his personal politics and values.
I am not suggesting that Mitt Romney, a Mormon, should be questioned more harshly than other presidential candidates about his religious values. My concern is more basic: Mitt Romney has not been asked any direct questions about how his “deeply held” Mormon faith, a religion that was openly racist for much of its approximately 150 year existence, impacted his attitudes towards people of color.
Why raise these questions now? I believe in a strong wall between Church and State; I also believe that matters of faith should be private and not public. Since the Republican primaries, public concerns about Mitt Romney, his Mormon faith, and its long history of racism hung in the air, but they were not yet immediate and pressing.
This changed last Friday when Mitt Romney openly embraced Birtherism, and its racist baggage, during a speech in
During the last few months, Romney has also suggested that Barack Obama is lazy, a thief, an angry hateful black man, and is an alien Other who does not understand American values. These are centuries-old and ugly stereotypes about black Americans.
Mitt Romney’s willingness to play in the muck of white racism in order to defeat Barack Obama, the country’s first black president, transforms what were “merely” important questions about Mormonism and racism, into critical and immediate ones.
It is true that the Mormon Church has made some progress in addressing its long history of racism. However, people of color who are Mormons still report that an undercurrent of prejudice and racism exists within the religion.
It is also important to note that Mitt Romney’s father supported the Black Freedom Struggle and civil rights for African-Americans. By comparison, Mitt Romney’s only substantive comment on Mormonism’s history of racism was that he was happy when the restrictions on blacks holding the priesthood were removed.
We should not forget that when faced with a choice, Mitt Romney, who was thirty-one years old in 1978, did not work to overturn his faith’s racist policies; nor did Romney repudiate his religion’s white supremacist norms. At best, he was relieved when the elders of his faith tried to walk away from Mormonism’s racist ways. At worst, Mitt Romney gave tacit consent and support for prejudice and bigotry towards people of color.
I am not sure if Mitt Romney is an active, belligerent racist, or if he simply is a product of a particularly narrow upbringing and worldview which sees people of color as “less than,” and embraces white privilege as an organizing principle.
Romney’s race-baiting against President Obama may also be a function of a very limited and myopic set of life experiences that Justin Frank insightfully described in a recent essay on Salon.com.
Describing Mitt Romney he wrote:
“He is anxious about revealing who he is and about interacting with people he doesn’t know. He appears to have much less experience than Obama in interacting with people from all walks of life. Basically, he is uncomfortable except within his own family and in the presence of those who share his wealthy background and Mormon faith.”
This is a devastating analysis for a man who would be asked to lead all Americans—many of whom are nothing like him.
Social scientists are predicting that the
will be a “majority minority” country by the year 2040. Is Mitt Romney, a man
who was raised in a faith tradition which until 1978 held that people of color
were inferior to whites, comfortable with leading such a diverse country? Does
Mitt Romney’s willful and flagrant use of white racial anxiety, and an updated
version of the Southern Strategy to win over white voters, signal that he is a
racist? Is Romney’s race-baiting enabled by his faith?
Ultimately, Mitt Romney has—in what can be described in the most generous terms—an inconsistent relationship to the truth. He has also refused to answer basic questions about his taxes, business relationship with Bain Capital, as well as other matters.
In all, Romney has proven himself to be a well-practiced dissembler. Consequently, we can not be sure if Mitt Romney will honestly answer any queries posed to him about racism and the Mormon faith. Nevertheless, Mitt Romney should still be asked these questions: the American people, all of us, across the color line, deserve some honest answers.