The measure of a man should be in his deeds, not the color of his skin or his religious background. That’s what enlightened people are taught to think these days, but most of us (myself included, of course) have moments of predjudicial judgment we can choose to fall prey to or overcome. Puppets and humans in the hit musical “Avenue Q” sang “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” but the issue is bigger than that. In the Presidential race, there are two icebergs looming, of unknown size: the President’s race and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s religion.
Could the election of President Obama actually help his challenger? One Mitt Romney supporter I met recently said that the best indication that Mormonism would not tank Romney’s chances was the election of the President. Take the now-classic 2008 article relating a story of rural Pennsylvanians saying, “We’re voting for the nigger.”) The Romney supporter thought that if the President could get elected through that haze, then Romney’s religion would not be a barrier to election.
The President still faces racial challenges in a slew of different ways, from surrealist birther movies to a group of conservative funders planning, in their own word, “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama.” (The fact that they were bold enough to put this plan on paper and distribute it to someone who leaked it to the New York times shows both their ambition and clumsiness.) The deep pockets in this case are members of the Ricketts family, who own the Chicago Cubs. (One of the Ricketts, however, is a major Obama fundraiser.) The team gearing up for attack plans to re-fight the war over the President’s connection to Pastor Jeremiah Wright, which they believe Senator John McCain was stupid not to use more in 2008.
Mitt Romney faces different identity challenges. A recent report by The Daily questions whether he has avoided talking about good deeds because of the way those mesh with his Mormon faith; and an article in the Washington Post has gotten both cheers and jeers from people who perceive it depicting young Romney as a callous, bullying rich kid.
One cold December day in the early 1980s, Mitt Romney loaded up his Gran Torino with firewood and brought it to the home of a single mother whose heat had been shut off just days before Christmas. Years after a business partner died unexpectedly, Romney helped the man’s surviving daughter go to medical school with loans for tuition — loans he forgave when she graduated…. Some supporters believe he isn’t touting them [i.e., these and other accounts] because it’s impossible to separate the good works he’s done from a Mormon faith that demands them — a faith that has by all accounts been a defining influence in his life, yet which the campaign has been determined to keep out of the political conversation.
The New York Times has also contributed to the conversation over the role of Romney’s faith in his life and politics in ways both substantive and stylistic. From that article:
Mormonism teaches respect for secular authorities as well as religious ones, but “politics has required him to go against form,” said Richard Bushman, a leading historian of the church who knows Mr. Romney from church.
For example, Mr. Romney had ruled out running personal attack ads against political rivals, those close to him said. When Senator Edward M. Kennedy attacked him as an uncaring capitalist in 1994, using ads that exaggerated Mr. Romney’s role in Bain-related layoffs, Mr. Romney refused to punch back and exploit Mr. Kennedy’s history of womanizing. “Winning is not important enough to put aside my ideals and principles,” Mr. Romney told aides….
Last week, Mr. Romney repudiated efforts to attack President Obama based on his past relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. But earlier this year, he suggested that Mr. Obama wanted to make the United States “a less Christian nation.”
“I have absolutely no idea how he rationalizes it,” Mr. Kimball said of Mr. Romney’s harshest statements and attacks. “It almost seems to be the ends justifying the means.”
The interplay of election politics and identity politics will help drive campaign 2012. The question is not whether the tone and allegations about race and religion will get nasty, but how nasty. And its up to us, the American people, how to respond.