On a recent trip to Atlanta, I noticed a large billboard right alongside highway 285 that surrounds the city. It featured three smiling multicultural faces and at the boom it read: “I’m a Mormon.”
I frequently visit Atlanta and hadn’t seen these signs before. What’s more, I was surprised that such signs were appearing just around the time that the GOP primary was heating up and Mitt Romney was beginning to see himself as Mr. Inevitable.
The funny thing is that the signs didn’t make me think of the powerful Mormon Church behind Mr. Romney, or the inevitability of his campaign. It made me realize all the more just how much trouble he will be in if he even manages to win the GOP nomination for president.
Let’s face facts, most Americans do not know much about the Mormon faith and what they do know they do not like. The New York Times did a story in late November revealing how the Mormon Church – after seeing the backlash their faith received during Romney’s first run for president in 2008 – has gone on a multi-million dollar media blitz across the nation and the web trying to change the image of their church. Thus explains the literal explosion of “I’m a Mormon” posters all across the major metropolitan areas in the United States.
The church has the goal of convincing Americans that the Mormon faith is not exclusive, secretive or even cultish but is in fact a part of the American religious fabric that we all cherish. Good luck with that.
One interesting thing about Americans and our tolerance vs. acceptance of difference that is often overlooked is that it is contingent on choice. Meaning, Americans will only learn to accept something about people when we begin to view it as something that people have no choice over. America’s great sin, which is the inherent racism in almost every public policy decision on a federal level until about 40 years ago, only began to change because white Americans began to accept that black people where in fact people. That skin color did not entirely determine culture, or intelligence or lots of other social mores.
Are there still bigots out there? Of course, but you also have those reformed bigots that believe “He / She can’t HELP” that they’re black. That is why some core Republican voters would have no problem voting for a Herman Cain, or a Colin Powell, or even a Condoleeza Rice had she run for public office. But religion, now that is another matter.
Americans, especially conservative Christians, believe that since you choose whether or not to follow God, and you choose what religion you will follow that it is perfectly OK to discriminate against someone who chooses the “wrong” faith. See, you can discriminate against someone for their choices, but not those things they have no control over. That is why homosexuality is grudgingly but increasingly accepted in America because more and more people have come to believe that being gay is something that you’re born with, not something that you can actively choose, or un-choose.
Now, I would argue that religion is something that you barely choose as well. It has a lot to do with where you are born, who your parents are and what kind of environment you were raised in. However, this is a minority view. Most people not only consider religion to be a choice, but experience great satisfaction in testifying to others about how they magically “came” to their religious choice in some moment of spiritual epiphany. Too bad for Romney.
By all accounts, Romney is going to have trouble winning the Republican nomination, and even if he does, there is a segment of the GOP that will never truly trust him or his faith. The fact that the Mormon Church feels the need to advertise on his behalf in blood red states such as Georgia is yet another sign of the former Massachusetts governor’s tenuous relationship with the conservative religious base of his own party. If only his difference were something more immutable he wouldn’t have these problems. If only he could trade one minority status for another.
I can imagine in a small corner of his mind that Mitt Romney wonders to himself if he’d be having all of this trouble if he were a black Republican instead of a Mormon. As strange as it is to admit, if he were black, he’d probably be doing better in the polls.
What a strange political world we live in heading into 2012.