According to every poll, a Mormon and a black man are now the Republican front-runners for president. That’s pretty amazing. But the bigger story is that neither candidate represents his people. Mitt Romney has to defeat a fellow Mormon, Jon Huntsman, in the primaries. Herman Cain, if nominated, would face Barack Obama in the general election. Romney is nothing like Huntsman. Cain is nothing like Obama.
I don’t know whether this four-way fight will produce a winner. But I know what it will destroy: stereotypes.
We tend to think of prejudice as the denial of equality. That’s one aspect of prejudice, as Obama noted yesterday in his speech honoring the new memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. But prejudice is also the denial of difference. It’s a failure to recognize each person as an individual rather than as a projected average of a group. And the most effective cure for this failure isn’t to see blacks and whites, or Mormons and evangelicals, holding hands. It's to watch two blacks or two Mormons go at each other.
When Obama ran for president, opponents associated him with black leftists and radicals. Bill Clinton brushed off Obama’s victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary by comparing it to Jesse Jackson’s. Republicans depicted Obama as an extension of angry preacher Jeremiah Wright. Newt Gingrich, echoing Dinesh D’Souza, suggested that Obama’s actions were “outside our comprehension” because they reflected “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.” Obama’s actual behavior—abstaining from racial appeals during the campaign, stiffing the Congressional Black Caucus, escalating drone warfare around the world, and offering a debt-reduction deal with spending cuts but no tax-rate hikes—defied these comparisons.
Cain fits the stereotype even less. Newsweek quotes a series of black critics—Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Boyce Watkins—who call Cain callous to the poor, “Jimmy Stewart in blackface,” and “the perfect racist.” Harry Belafonte likens Cain to Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, complaining that whites “believe this black man is the real deal. He isn’t. Anyone who says what he says isn’t.”
That’s a clear assertion of black orthodoxy. And Cain, just as clearly, rejects it. Yesterday on Meet the Press, Cain said he prefers to be called a “black American,” not an African-American, “because my roots go back through slavery in this country. Yes, they came from Africa, but the roots of my heritage are in the United States.” Cain praised Justice Clarence Thomas and boasted that unlike Obama, “My mother was a maid, my father was a barber and janitor and a chauffeur. … I have run small businesses. I have actually made pizzas, made hamburgers. I've actually had to do the inventory, clean the parking lot.”
No matter what you think of Cain or Obama, the airing of these differences in background and outlook has an important social effect. It shows that Jackson, Thomas, West, Powell, Belafonte, Rice, Obama, Wright, and Cain think differently. It debunks the black monolith.
A similar diversity is emerging among Mormons. My Slate colleagues Jacob Weisberg and Christopher Hitchens worry about Mormon myths, dogmas, and practices. Five years ago, Weisberg argued:
The world's greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor. The Church of Latter-day Saints is expanding rapidly and liberalizing in various ways, but it remains fundamentally an orthodox creed with no visible reform wing. … Romney has never publicly indicated any distance from church doctrine. He is an "elder" who performed missionary service in France as a young man and did not protest the church's overt racism and priestly discrimination before it was abolished in 1978.
Hitchens extends this critique. He calls Mormonism a “weird and sinister belief system” and argues that Romney “should be asked to defend and explain himself, and his voluntary membership in one of the most egregious groups operating on American soil.”
The central point Hitchens and Weisberg are trying to make is that it isn’t bigoted to ask a Mormon about his religious views. They’re right. But that question has to be asked with a fair and open mind. According to Sunday’s New York Times, Romney led a Mormon congregation and a diocese-sized district (he liked to be called “Bishop Romney”) and once pressed the church’s anti-abortion doctrine on a pregnant woman:
In 1990, Exponent II, a Mormon feminist magazine … published an article by a married mother of four who recounted her own experience after doctors advised her to terminate her pregnancy when she was being treated for a potentially dangerous blood clot. Her bishop [Romney] got wind of the situation, she wrote, and showed up unannounced at the hospital, warning her sternly not to go forward.
But the Times also notes that as a Massachusetts Senate candidate, “Romney angered higher-ups in Salt Lake with his independent stance on abortion; he said that he was personally opposed, but favored laws allowing women to choose.” (More recently, he has renounced abortion rights.) And Romney’s record as a church leader sometimes shows a subtler, gentler side. Once, “when a congregant asked to be released from his church duties during a difficult divorce, Mr. Romney said no; he did not want to send a message that divorced people could not serve.” On another occasion, when a couple “felt overwhelmed by church obligations,” Romney showed up at their door and told them, “I was just driving home from work, and I had a feeling that I needed to stop by and tell you that God loves you.” When a young addict sought Romney’s counsel, Romney told him that as long as he was “trying to do better … you’re a saint.”
What I see in these stories is moderation, metaphor, and some distance from church doctrine. But if Romney’s too orthodox for you, consider Huntsman. He says he embraces “many different types of religions.” He married an Episcopalian and was never sealed to her in a Mormon temple as his church prescribes. His kids go to Catholic schools. His eldest sons didn’t go on Mormon missions. His daughter married a non-Mormon in an Episcopal church. He’s raising his two adopted daughters with exposure to Hinduism and Buddhism, the faiths of their birth parents. As governor of Utah, he relaxed the state’s alcohol laws and extended state benefits to cover partners of unmarried employees, including gay couples.
Last month, Huntsman told CNN that “the Mormon population is more diverse, a lot more heterogeneous, and lot more free-thinking in certain instances, than people may give it credit for.” A Mormon professor says Huntsman arguably represents “reform Mormonism … someone who is culturally Mormon, who identifies with the tradition, who has been shaped by Mormon thought in his upbringing, but doesn't necessarily maintain orthodoxy on doctrinal beliefs.”
If the lesson of Obama and Cain is that not all blacks think alike, the lesson of Romney and Huntsman is that not all Mormons think alike. And while we’re at it, look at Rick Perry and Ron Paul, two conservative Texans with very different views on foreign policy and legislating morality. Or Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty, two Minnesota evangelicals with very different instincts about discussing faith. Or Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich—a lifelong Catholic on his first marriage, and a converted Catholic on his third. Look at all those “racist” Tea Party members who, as Slate’s David Weigel points out, support Cain. Look at the House and Senate majority leaders, Eric Cantor and Harry Reid. Cantor is a Republican. Reid is a Democrat. Guess which man is a Mormon, and which is a Jew.
Think about that the next time you hear any of these groups dismissed with a stereotype. And always strive to be more discriminating, not between races or religions, but within them.