by Melissa Harris-Perry
In this election cycle, on the Republican side, just-about everyone who’s running a real campaign is getting a chance to be the front-runner for a while. Even though newspaper columnists and politicos have been using the word “inevitable” to describe Mitt Romney for weeks now, he is not leading in the polls.
Given the cast of characters he’s running against, Mitt Romney probably should be the far-and-away front runner. He’s not. Certainly part of that has to do with his being seen-as “boring” or a “flip flopper” or insufficiently credentialed as a moral conservative.
But that doesn’t explain who is the front-runner right now. We are in the midst of the Newt bump right now. Newt Gingrich is in the lead among Republican voters.
Newt Gingrich is a man whose moral conservatism has also been questioned and who is also famous for flip-flops—including some doozies this election cycle. Remember when he called Paul Ryan’s kill-Medicare budget plan “right-wing social engineering” and then took it back and said anyone who ever tries to use his own words against him is lying?
So, Republican voters are saying they’d prefer the perhaps-questionably socially-conservative flip-flopper whose campaign looks more like a book tour than a presidential campaign over the perhaps-questionably socially-conservative flip-flopper who’s running a serious presidential campaign.
That seems weird, right? It suggests that something else may be afoot in Republican primary voters’ reluctance to get behind Mitt Romney.
Here’s a glimpse into one possibility of what might be dragging Mitt Romney’s campaign down from the Pew Research Center. Their latest survey, out today, shows that Mitt Romney’s religion— his Mormonism— is likely a factor in his candidacy in the Republican primary. The survey found that, among white evangelical Republican voters, 15 percent say Mr. Romney’s religion would make them less likely to support him.
Among all Americans, the survey asked people to give a one-word impression of the Mormon religion and the results were “About one-in-four give assessments that are negative in tone." Overall, "cult" is the most frequently used word.
Let’s be clear: if you’re a Republican voter, there are plenty of reasons to want to reject Mitt Romney as your party’s candidate. But his religion should not be one of them. If Mitt Romney is being rejected for his Mormonism, then Republican voters are demonstrating a troubling bias that has much broader implications.
So let’s pause for a moment. I don’t want to engage in a theological debate about Mormonism and whether Mormonism is a good or bad religion, whether it has troubling doctrine, funny beliefs, or strange practices. It is a religion after all and most world religions have what some people, somewhere would consider funny practices, troubling beliefs, and histories that include abusive actions against other groups.
What’s important here is that, the very thing that conservative evangelical Republican voters seem to be expressing angst about—Mitt Romney’s Mormonism—is the thing that makes Mitt Romney part of a group whose American story is marked by experiences of oppression, rejection, and second class citizenship.
Given the history of Mormon exclusion in this country, one might expect Romney to show real empathy for Muslims whose religion is distorted and degraded. Or for undocumented immigrants whose families are devastated by government policies as many Mormon families were in the 19th century, when Mormons were treated like many immigrants are being treated now— as threats to America that must be expelled. In 1838, Missouri’s governor ordered the Mormons expelled from the state or exterminated if necessary.
It’s almost time to celebrate Thanksgiving. As we gather, many of us will celebrate and reflect on the uniquely American stories of our own families. And my family’s immigration history is, in fact, tied up in the history of Mormonism.
My maternal line are Mormons. My grandfather’s mother immigrated from Sweden with her two siblings after her widowed mother was converted by Mormon missionaries. My great-grandfather’s father came to America as a 19-year-old from England following the Latter Day Saints to Utah. My immigrant ancestors pushed hand carts across the American West during the Mormon expulsion and I even have a maternal great-great grandfather who was imprisoned for polygamy. When he married multiple wives the practice was legal in the Utah territory. But when Utah entered the Union in 1896, his plural marrriages became illegal. Despite these laws, great grandfather Cooper refused to abandon his family. He served time in prison as a result. My own mother, though she left the Mormon church as an adult, was raised as a Mormon and attended Brigham Young University, graduating in 1965.
My American story is both the story of enslaved ancestors sold on the street corner in Richmond, Virginia on my dad’s side—and of a persecuted religious minority in the American West, on my mom’s side.
As we pause at Thanksgiving to celebrate a nation that, for all its shortcomings, makes a story like mine possible, it is a moment to celebrate our diversity, not to cower in fear of difference.
So to GOP primary voters, please feel free to reject the candidacy of Mitt Romney, but don’t do so because he is Mormon.
I’m happy to provide you with whole list of much better reasons!