by Jessie Washington And Rachel Zoll
AP National Writers

(AP)—How unthinkable it was, not so long ago, that a presidential election would pit a candidate fathered by an African against another condemned as un-Christian.

And yet, here it is: Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney, an African-American and a White Mormon, representatives of two groups that have endured oppression to carve out a place in the United States. How much progress has America made against bigotry? By November, we should have some idea.

OBAMA VS. ROMNEY—This combination of 2012 file photos shows U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Boulder, Colo. and Cape Canaveral, Fla. How much progress has America made against bigotry? (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, Charles Dharapak)

Perhaps mindful of the lingering power of prejudice, both men soft-pedal their status as racial or religious pioneers. But these things “will be factors whether they’re explicitly stated or not, because both Obama and Romney are minorities,” said Nancy Wadsworth, co-editor of the anthology “Faith and Race in American Political Life.” Mormons are 1.7 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center; African-Americans are 12.6 percent.

“Americans like to obsess about ways that people are different,” said Wadsworth, a political science professor at the University of Denver. Voters of all types say that a candidate’s race or religious beliefs should not be cause for bias, “but Americans are really conflicted about this, and they talk out of both sides of their mouth.”

In an October 2011 Associated Press-GfK poll, 21 percent of respondents said they would be less likely to cast a presidential vote for a Mormon. Four percent said they would be less likely to vote for a Black person. An AP poll during the 2008 campaign found that nearly 40 percent of White Americans had at least a partly negative view of Black people.

The gap between America’s high-minded ideals and narrow-minded practice is not new, of course.

In 1620, the Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock searching for religious freedom; the Constitution forbade a religious test for president. And yet the religion of presidential candidates has historically been a major issue, though nearly all have been Protestant. Thomas Jefferson, who coined the phrase “separation between church and state,” was decried as godless; nearly 160 years later, John F. Kennedy was tarred as a Roman Catholic who would answer to the pope instead of the American people.

In 1787, the same colonists who had demanded equal rights in their dealings with England wrote a Constitution that reduced Blacks to three-fifths of a person. Nearly 80 years would pass before that changed, and another century before Blacks would be assured the vote. Barack Obama remains the sole member of the most exclusive club in the world: racial minorities who were nominated for president by a major party.

In 2012, it’s unlikely that more than a smattering of die-hard bigots will be repelled by both presidential choices. But even well-intentioned people can be influenced by the powerful emotional pull of these issues.

Obama has been assailed with racially charged accusations since he became the first Black president: Obama isn’t a citizen; he refused to punish New Black Panthers who intimidated White voters; he’s seeking payback for past White racism by redistributing tax money to poor minorities; he’s using the Trayvon Martin killing for political gain.

Wadsworth said that even after three-plus years of a Black president, racial bias remains “super loaded and super coded.”

“It’s coded into political ‘otherness’—he’s a socialist, he’s dangerous, maybe a Muslim,” she said. “I think down underneath there’s a lot of race bias, it’s just that they’ve figured out ways to channel that into seemingly race-neutral codes.”

Then there’s bald racism. This April, bar owner Patrick Lanzo in Paulding County, Ga., posted a roadside sign outside his establishment that used the n-word to convey his disdain for the president. “I don’t feel bad about (the sign) whatsoever,” Lanzo told Fox 5 news in Atlanta.

Obviously, Obama’s victory in 2008 did not put racial issues to rest. “He is never on stable ground, racially,” Wadsworth observed.

Romney, too, has tried to push past anti-Mormonism, with mixed success. His membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been an issue his entire political career.

There continue to be blatant expressions of hostility toward Mormons—there is an “I Hate Mormons” page on Facebook, where one Colleen Anderson posted that “Mormons are just brainwashed freaks” on April 4.

The Mormon church was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, who said God directed him to restore the true Christian church by revising parts of the Bible and adding the Book of Mormon as a sacred text. Smith said an angel directed him to a buried holy book in upstate New York, written on golden plates, which he translated from “reformed Egyptian” into the Book of Mormon. Theological differences have led many Christians to conclude that Mormons are not part of historic Christianity.

There’s the issue of polygamy—though the Mormon church renounced the practice in 1890. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, recently took the opportunity of a Daily Beast interview to say that Romney’s father, George, was “born into (a) polygamy commune in Mexico.” (Mitt Romney’s grandfather, Gaskell, had one wife, but his great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney, had four and fled to Mexico in 1885 to escape U.S. anti-polygamy laws.)

There have been gibes directed at Mormon rituals. In February, when Romney decried the fact that the rate of out-of-wedlock births for “certain ethnic groups” was high, New York Times columnist Charles Blow tweeted, “I’m a single parent and my kids are amazing! Stick that in your magic underwear.”

One of the toughest questions will likely focus on the Mormons’ former ban on men of African descent in the priesthood. When the church lifted the prohibition in 1978, leaders didn’t explain the theology behind it. That left questions about church doctrine on race, even though Mormon leaders repeatedly denounce racism.

When Liberty University, the school founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, announced Romney as commencement speaker, hundreds of angry comments were posted on Liberty’s Facebook page by people who said they were students or alumni, objecting to giving a Mormon a platform. The school responded by affirming its welcome to Romney.

But evangelicals are among the country’s most politically conservative voters, and “they’re going to hold their nose and vote for Romney. They’re certainly not going to join the Obama campaign,” said Patrick Mason, author of “The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South.”

“Is the bigger problem for Romney not evangelical Christians, but more secular voters who are skeptical of what Mormonism is, or just ignorant?” Anderson asked.

In 2008, racial issues threatened to torpedo Obama after the emergence of militant pro-Black sermons by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Obama defused the issue with a major speech on race, but the Wright connection fed a GOP narrative that Obama was not “one of us.” Demo­crats labeled such statements coded language that appealed to racial prejudices.

In the final stages of his losing campaign, McCain declined entreaties from some advisers to use Wright’s sermons to attack Obama.

“John McCain, whatever else you want to say about him, did not use all the racial weapons he could have used,” said Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor and author of “The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency.”

“Well, McCain lost,” Kennedy continued. “I can’t help but think that this time around, if there is anything that could plausibly be used, no matter how ugly, it will be used. So I anticipate a very messy, ugly campaign.”

“I hope I’m wrong,” Kennedy said, “but I expect it to be worse.”

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