For the first time in American history, a Mormon had a serious shot of making it to the highest office in the land. But no more: Mitt Romney has pulled out of active competition for the Republican nomination and thus for the presidency. How should us Mormons feel about that?
I never was a Romney supporter; his “conservatism” (business-oriented, technocratic, globalist, classically liberal, only nominally cultural) wasn’t the kind I particularly trust or like, and his style and preferences and stratagems left me cold. But that doesn’t change the fact that I was fascinated with the man; that as a member of his tribe, I thought often (and even had some recommendations) about what he should say and who he should try to be. And consequently, I can understand one reaction many American Mormons may be feeling right now:
Pissed at Mike Huckabee.
Leave aside the fact that Huckabee was (unaccountably, but somehow truthfully nonetheless) a passing friend of Senator McCain’s, and thus predisposed to take on someone else as the contest narrowed. Leave aside the fact that it was perhaps inevitable that they would clash: with Thompson a cypher, Ron Paul too much on the fringe for most even rather serious conservatives, and McCain and Giuliani occupying a moderate, pro-war, foreign-policy heavy middle, that left Huckabee and Romney alone seriously shooting for the Christian right vote. No, putting all that aside, there remains the question: did Huckabee undermine Romney’s campaign through and because of bigotry?
I have a good friend, another Mormon, who has lived pretty much all his life in the South, and so despite my years in Mississippi, Arkansas, and now Kansas, I usually defer to him when it comes to interpreting Southern Baptist habits and words. And he is convinced that Huckabee’s relentless attacks on Romney and his candidacy–attacks that at the very least played a not insignificant role in keeping some social conservative voters from straying over to the Romney camp, especially in the lead-up to South Carolina, Florida, and Super Tuesday–were not primarily the result of political calculation, but rather the result of religious prejudice. I quote from two recent e-mails of his:
I haven’t seen any polls on the Mormon issue; but in listening to Huckabee supporters on TV and radio for the past month, it’s clear that most of them have a profound distrust and often contempt for Romney, which makes it easy for me to assume that anti-Mormon sentiment plays at least some role–possibly a big role–in Huckabee’s success. His continued Romney baiting–often in expressly religious terms–suggests that he’s not unaware of that prejudice. (“Tonight, we are making sure America understands that sometimes one small smooth stone is even more effective than a whole lot of armor.” So he’s David to the evil Goliath. “And we have also seen that the widow’s mite has more effectiveness than all the gold in the world.” He’s the hero of Jesus’ parable and Romney is a Pharisee.)….Huckabee will stay in at least as long as Romney stays in. If he does, I’m sure at some point we’ll hear him talking about how his campaign walks through the primaries “without purse, and scrip, and shoes”….Overtly religious rhetoric and posturing–especially on a consistent basis over the duration of a campaign–is an extremely unusual thing in American politics–even in the Republican party. Not even Pat Robertson in his ’88 bid went as far as Huckabee has gone with the religious rhetoric, despite having a much more ambitious “moral” agenda. The thought that this decision is just a natural outgrowth of having once been a preacher, rather than a deliberate rhetorical strategy to consolidate a certain segment of voters and differentiate himself positively from his chief competitor, just seems like a stretch to me….They really do hate Mormons, man.
As I had to confess to my friend, I may be in the grips of an odd prejudice here (a doubly odd one for a Mormon to hold), but I just can’t buy this. I have no doubt that more than a few of those evangelicals who turned out to vote for Huckabee on Super Tuesday did so because of anti-Mormon bigotry; I’m also quite certain that Huckabee and at least some of his people know this, and haven’t gone out of their way to squelch it. But then…well, I don’t know what to say beyond that. Obama is most certainly benefiting from votes coming from both Democrats and independents who loathe Hillary Clinton as some kind of communist lesbian vampire; sure, he treats her with respect, but neither is he going the extra mile to make sure everyone knows that Senator Clinton is a perfectly fine and decent candidate. Politics makes use of prejudices, both honorable and dishonorable ones. Should the fact that there are (maybe a few, maybe a lot of) anti-Mormons voting against a Mormon candidate for a presidential nomination be something that derails the legitimacy of a whole campaign?
Well, maybe. Maybe if you can show that Governor Huckabee, in choosing his words and his target, is implicitly (or maybe even explicitly) making his opponent seem like an unChristian, untrustworthy, unauthentic human being, and doing so in ways that align very well with anti-Mormon rhetorical tropes. That is, maybe if you can show that Huckabee really has been stoking the fires of bigotry, then you might have a case against him.
I just don’t think you can do that. Huckabee–like every candidate–has done some slimy and dishonorable things. Given the block of voters he was competing for, and given the sorts of rhetorical reservoirs he has to draw upon, his slimy and dishonorable things have often had a religious cast to them. Predictably, that religious cast has been an evangelical, Protestant one, and hence can easily be presented as anti-Mormon. But again…where do you go from there? You could, of course, insist upon a level of integrity, decency, and honesty from your presidential candidates. Yet besides the obvious things (like not playing fast and loose with the basic rules of the game, as Bush and his people did long ago in Florida, and as Clinton and her people appear to be trying to do with Florida and Michigan delegates now (see Timothy Burke and Ezra Klein for details)), such expectations often come to ground on subjective matters: did you attack someone’s wife, did you lie about someone’s record, did you say a mean and cruel thing? Too often, the result is school-yard taunts, of which we all get enough of every two or four years. In the end, I can’t complain if it turns out that Huckabee’s rhetoric, maybe even his occasional asides to his core audience, are basically tribal–as I recently said, I not only don’t object to a little non-violent tribalism, I actually think it can often be a necessary and good thing. Mormons do it too, that’s for certain (go ahead, get a random bunch of Mormon missionaries together, and ask them their honest opinion of Jehovah’s Witnesses). And so, if a Mormon takes to the public square, especially the biggest public square of them all, he may find his tribe employed against his will or even against his notion of fair play in order to go along with the self-definition and get-out-the-vote drives of someone else.
As for me, well, I’ve never met Huckabee; I voted for him once for governor of Arkansas, but as I’ve said a couple of times before, I wouldn’t vote for him for President. But I like the man because he reflects, at least potentially, a populist conservative sentiment that I can intellectually get behind, a sentiment that our country needs more of. Romney, in my view, didn’t do any of that; hence, I’m not sad to see Huckabee remaining a player in the Republican contest and Romney throwing in the towel. I would be sad–I would be angry, I would be frustrated and depressed and pissed–if the only message here was “no one will listen to a Mormon, because they hate us.” But at most, I think the message here is “if a Mormon without any deep roots in or even much of a relationship with the Christian rights decides, for some mix of personal conviction and political calculation, to make a play for Christian right voters against a former Southern Baptist preacher, one that will not be above making jokes and comments here and there to demonstrate his bona fides to his core supporters, prepare to not win.” The anti-Mormonism out there–which surely is real, but is just as surely, I think at least, to be mostly implicit and/or subconscious and/or in the eye of the beholder–is just going to the icing on your farewell cake.