Sunday, April 3, 2011

Mitt Romney and the Liberal Test

If you look at the men whose presidential or vice presidential candidacies broke through long-standing barriers of religious prejudice, it is hard to avoid noticing that all of them were Democrats:

- Al Smith, the New York Governor who became the first Catholic nominated for president by a major party in 1928.

- John Kennedy, the Massachusetts Senator who became the first Catholic actually elected to the presidency in 1960.

- Michael Dukakis, the Massachusetts Governor who became the first Eastern Orthodox adherent nominated by a major party in 1988 (if he'd been elected, his wife would have also become the first Jewish First Lady).

- Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Senator who became the first Jew nominated for vice president by a major party in 2000, after being selected by Albert Gore.

I mention all of this because, while liberals feel justifiable pride in our movement’s role in defending these men from hate-based attacks, we also benefited on those occasions from the knowledge that the individuals in question happened to be “on our side.” It is in this way that the 2012 presidential election may provide us with one of our greatest tests:

Can we stand firm in our opposition to religious bigotry when its target is a right-wing Republican?

Before you dismiss this question as merely hypothetical, bear in mind that one of the frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination is Mitt Romney, a staunch conservative best known as the scion of a Michigan political dynasty, a competent former Massachusetts governor, a renowned business whiz/corporate fixer-upper… and a Mormon.

If you think this last detail has no effect on whether Romney is qualified to be president, you are absolutely right. If, however, you believe that the rest of the nation is bound to feel the same way, you are tragically mistaken. Early signs of what may await Romney if he is nominated can be found from the 2008 election, when his first bid for the GOP’s top prize brought anti-Mormon sentiment to the fore.

“God cannot be identified… with the Mormon religion’s notion of god,” declared a faith guide issued by Focus on the Family, a powerful institutional organ of the Christian Right.

“Can Mitt Romney Serve Two Masters? The Mormon Church vs. the United States of America” blared the heading of an eight-page e-mail sent to radio talk show hosts throughout the country by Christian Right-wingers Tricia Erickson and Donna Rice (the latter of Gary Hart sex scandal fame).

“Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” joked Mike Huckabee, one of Romney’s chief rivals for the nomination (then and now).

Of course, because all of these incidents involve conservatives, some liberals who read about them may assume that their movement has no need to fear being infected with such venom. Right-wingers have an inherent intolerant streak anyway, they feel (inaccurately, I might add). Liberals would never say or do anything so hateful.

Of course, such an assumption requires that its bearers not notice the remarks of Reverend Al Sharpton, who said he wasn’t worried about a Romney presidency because “those that really believe in God will defeat him anyway.”

It involves overlooking the diatribe of left-wing political analyst Larry O’Donnell, who referred to Mormonism as “demented”, “ridiculous”, and “based on the work of a lying, fraudulent criminal."

It insists on finding some other explanation as to why progressive activist Ryan J. Davis defended O’Donnell’s tirade in a Huffington Post editorial while adding some insults of his own, such as referring to “Mormon doctrine” as a “swampland” through which he had to “dredge” to write his article.

Finally, it doesn’t account for the fact that – given how 29% of Americans have said that they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate – the sheer laws of statistical probability suggest that there are liberals as well as conservatives making up that forbidding number.

There are plenty of excellent reasons to oppose Mitt Romney. His economic policies are skewed too heavily toward big business and the wealthy, which would further exacerbate the catastrophic income disparity existing today between the rich and middle class; his insistence on slashing government spending will hobble our efforts to reverse this recession’s unemployment crisis; his conservatism on social issues ranging from gay rights to marijuana legalization would prolong antiquated injustices; and his support, until recently, of increasing our troop presence in Iraq suggests that he hasn’t learned from the mistakes of Bush’s neoconservative agenda.

Liberals can and should wage a campaign against Romney based on the merits of our positions and the weaknesses in his. That said, we must also jump to his defense whenever his religious background is attacked – not only because his faith has no relevance to his ability to be a good president, although it doesn't, but because silence in the face of such attacks will disgrace us in the eyes of history.

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