The American presidential election—taking place a mere three weeks from tomorrow—pits the country’s first African American president against the first Mormon to receive a major party’s nomination. This would seem to be but a restatement of widely recognized biographical detail, but for the fact that apparently 40% of Americans polled by Gallup this summer were unaware of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. And so, in this cycle we’re seeming some commentary reflecting on the omission of race and religion in the campaign, rather than impact.
Earlier this month, for instance, John G. Turner wrote in the Washington Post about the “non-issue” of Romney’s Mormonism. Turner, the author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (one of our most acclaimed fall books), compares the focus on JFK’s Catholicism in 1960 to the relative lack of concern with Romney’s religion this year:
Romney, by nearly any measuring stick, is much more devout as a Latter-day Saint than John F. Kennedy was as a Christian. Moreover, both Catholics and Mormons were religious outsiders in nineteenth-century America. Anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism were significant political movements, and both Catholics and Mormons suffered at the hands of violent mobs.
Anti-Catholicism remained significant through the 19th century, but it peaked during the pre-Civil War years. Mormonism, by contrast, continued to grow as an object of political concern through the 1880s. Mormons, unlike Catholics, occupied and controlled a huge chunk of real estate, nearly fought a war against the U.S. Army in 1857, and openly practiced polygamy until 1890.
Despite this shared history, there are obvious reasons why Kennedy’s faith was a much bigger concern in 1960. Catholics comprised around a quarter of the American population in 1960, as opposed to the nearly 2 percent of Americans who affiliate with the LDS Church today. Only the truly paranoid can foresee a Mormon takeover beyond the horizon of a Romney victory. Kennedy’s campaign and victory, moreover, smoothed the way for future religious outsiders like both George Romney (who ran in the 1968 Republican primaries) and his son Mitt.
Meanwhile, in an American Historical Association roundtable discussion of the first Obama-Romney debate, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness, noted the complete absence of race from the night’s conversation:
One of the most striking aspects of the first 2012 presidential debate is how little President Obama’s racial identity mattered. Neither in his own narrative of who he is as a candidate nor in his policy prescriptions did we hear any echoes of his “unlikely story” to become the nation’s first black president. Was this because the subject of the debate was the economy and not social issues? Or because he is a known quantity and can run on his record? Or is it because his presidency has achieved something no Democratic president has since before FDR’s second term?
Unless one assumes that economic inequality is universal in its causes and consequences (or that it is a social issue and therefore a topic for a future debate), how inequality has impacted African Americans during President Obama’s first term is critically important. Not only are black voters his strongest base of support, they have experienced near double the rates of white unemployment and levels of urban joblessness that rival the roughly 40 percent of black Americans unemployed during the Great Depression.
Last night something changed. In the midst of the worst poverty in a half-century and the unprecedented scale of incarceration of poor people, the white guy and the black guy, the Republican and the Democrat, for the first time seemed indistinguishable when it comes to the economics of race. A little bit or a lot of history was made.
Only time will tell.
Of course, highlighting silence on a topic is not the same thing as declaring it a “non-issue,” and so we shouldn’t conflate these two pieces of commentary. And, to be sure, Turner’s argument is about Mormonism specifically, not all religions, as he’s careful to note that a Muslim “would probably face insurmountable odds in a quest for national political office.” Still, we needn’t neglect the very real differences between the impact on one’s life of being a Mormon or being an African American in order to note the parallel: each candidate at times seems determined to discourage focus on the demographic detail that most distinguishes him from every American president who has come before.
Interestingly, both Turner and Muhammad note the extent to which the level of support for Obama among African American voters helps to keep both the president’s blackness and his challenger’s Mormonism out of the official conversation. To Muhammad, Obama can focus less on race than his Democratic predecessors because they “needed black voters to see past their white skin,” while Obama “can simply trade on his brown skin and cool gait.” Turner, in turn, explains that “if Romney had any chance of winning an appreciable amount of African American votes, it would be rather easy to ask why he did not publicly oppose the church’s pre-1978 denial of priesthood ordination to men of African descent.”
Not for nothing: these conversations about elision are taking place just as the Supreme Court considers the use of race in university admissions.