I began this post last week as a way of explaining the significance of what I felt could happen in the South today. Now, as the final votes are counted, I am deeply disappointed for reasons that are far more important than vote counts and delegate tallies. Sure, I had hoped that endorsements of governors and former governors were going to make the impossible happen. When Alabama’s Randy Owen and redneck favorite, Jeff Foxworthy stepped in to help, my confidence rose even further. Despite the letdown, my disappointment comes from a different place than the numbers flashing by at the bottom of our TV screens. It comes from the place where pride in one’s heritage establishes itself at an early age and grows inside us as we mature from child to adult. There is something inside us that makes us want to be loyal to where we come from, to our family, to our tribe, our homeland, even our team. When any of those disappoints us, it hurts.
With those feelings in mind, I decided to check for comments on the wonderful Web site Evangelicals for Mitt, where the post by Nancy French made me feel better in an instant. She puts things in the proper perspective, telling us that Mississippi will always have a soft place in her heart, for it was there that her husband proposed to her. I will always have a soft spot for Alabama, for that is where I was born and grew up. My roots there go back many generations to several families who settled there in the early 19th century.
Nevertheless, there is something that still needs to be said. I begin with some important questions, asked not in bitterness, nor as a simple way to get things off my chest. I ask them in the hope that a few more people might help press for needed answers, which in turn will help us find a solution to some very serious problems.
So, when are the media going to describe Mitt Romney’s “problem” exactly for what it is? Who is going to step up and explain why he is not winning the Republican primaries in a landslide? Rather than simply dancing around the central issue with coy references to his supposed “weakness” as a candidate, who is going to look at the facts squarely in the face and recognize that bigotry is alive and well in the United States of America in the 21st Century?
After writing those words I had second thoughts about using the term bigotry, but recent events and a quick glance at the Merriam-Webster online dictionary convinced me otherwise. A bigot is:
A person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance
Based on that definition, I decided to use the term very purposefully. The first reason is that I have a vivid recollection of bigotry in two very important contexts. Second, things are happening in this election season that are either sustained by bigotry or seek to take advantage of its awful consequences.
Two years after I was born in Montgomery, my parents moved to Tallassee, a small town that was for many years about an hour’s drive northeast of Montgomery. Google Maps says that it now takes 39 minutes via the freeway, a significant improvement over the country roads I experienced growing up. Eight years later we moved for a couple of years to another small town, DeFuniak Springs, Florida which is located in the panhandle part of the state. We returned to Montgomery in 1958 when I was 12. Because we had not owned a television and had moved away from Montgomery, I was only vaguely aware of the boiling race issues of the day. The heroism of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott is something I experienced only by word of mouth. I vaguely recall that people who spoke of those events did not always use the fondest of terms. The one thing I do remember vividly, however, was seeing separate drinking fountains and restrooms for the “coloreds,” as well as the balcony seating at the Mt Vernon Theater in Tallassee, which my mother managed. My father managed the Tala-C Drive-In Theater, which was on the outside of town. “Colored people” could buy tickets there, but they had to park on the back row.
I also remember very well the Freedom Riders coming into Montgomery and getting attacked by a mob of white protesters at the Greyhound Bus Station just five blocks from where we lived in 1961. I remember hearing in 1963 about Bull Connor and his police attack dogs and fire hoses up in Birmingham as well as George Wallace standing in the doorway at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. By the time the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches came along, I was in college and can remember the television images of marchers getting attacked with billy clubs and tear gas at the Edmund Pettus Bridge that crosses the Alabama River in Selma.
All that might sound a little like Forrest Gump and his mythical coming of age in Alabama, but unlike Forrest, I was not in any of the TV coverage of those events. Nevertheless, bigotry is something I know. Growing up in the middle of it, however, I was a bit like the fish who doesn’t know he is in the water. The importance of those various events was not something I was sufficiently aware of until later in my life. In fact, it was only while I was serving as a missionary in France from July 1966 through December, 1968, that I really began to understand what I had lived through.
While in France and when people learned that I was from Alabama, it seemed at the time that they would invariably come up with innumerable questions concerning what was going on. Pictures of the Selma to Montgomery marches, combined with the reputation of Governor George Wallace, provided the opening for the conversations we had. People were also curious about the riots in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan, where Mitt’s dad, George, was serving as governor at the time. Those riots happened in 1967 and Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in April, 1968. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in San Francisco two months later after winning the California Presidential Primary. The combined effect of all of those tragedies prompted questions from more people than I could imagine. “If you are from Alabama, why do you hate black people?” I of course truthfully denied having any such feelings. Nevertheless, those interactions prompted deep reflection on what I had seen and experienced growing up in Alabama.
Fortunately, that somewhat dramatic story has a happy ending. When I returned from France and attended Auburn University, which had been integrated during my 30-month absence, I became friends with a black student who was in our physics class. I am happy to say that he was included as a member of our small study group, and I cannot remember a single comment from anyone regarding the color of his skin. The other students were from small towns around the state of Alabama, so such an outcome might have been a surprise to my questioners in France. This young man was just one of the guys struggling to learn college physics, as were we all.
The year my wife and I were married, we attended church services in Montgomery at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. had been a pastor from 1954 to 1960. I am sure that my mother had told me this, but it was only recently that I became fully aware that it was in that church that King organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began in 1955, initiating the long process of redress for the injustices that blacks had suffered in the South. My heart filled with pride that December day in 1971 as I met members of the church and listened to the sermon, feeling that my state had successfully navigated the challenging times of the 1950s and 60s.
The end of the second story is unfolding as I finish this piece and the results of the Republican Primaries in Alabama and Mississippi are being announced. I just looked up from my computer and saw the headline of the Drudge Report on the screen of the computer where my wife is working, “Rick Double in South. This outcome was to be expected given the previews we have seen from South Carolina and Tennessee, but I had been hopeful that my beloved South would come through in the end. Mitt seemed to be well received in ways much friendlier than many had predicted.
To digress for a moment, this second story has its beginning at the end of the 19th Century. Mormon missionaries were leaving their settlements in Utah to go out across the world, including the southern United States, where their reception was not always on the friendliest of terms. My mother, my sister, and I had joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Montgomery when I was 12. I later learned that my great-grandparents had joined in 1900, and just a few years before their time, a missionary, Joseph Standing, had been killed by a mob in Varnell, Georgia, on July 21, 1879. On August 10, 1884, in Cane Creek, Tennessee, four people were killed by an attacking mob, including two missionaries and a local member of the Church. Just recently a neighbor sent me a file containing the journal of his grandfather, Wayne Hardison Redd, who had been a missionary in the South in the late 1890s and had kept a very detailed journal. Looking through the pages, I discovered that he had lived and preached in the same area where my grandparents joined the Church two years later. I also read of mobs breaking up meetings and threatening the missionaries. Here is one excerpt:
Had quite a long chat with Lawyer Flanigen. He showed me an article in the paper where the Missippi Conference had been broken up by an armed mob of 250 men led by a Baptist Minister.
Here are a couple of references to Redd’s personal experiences:
Fasted as usual this morning. Left Mr. Smith with an invitation to call again. Walked a few miles up to Bro John Gigers but found him gone. So we went on 1 mile farther to a friend’s. He was also gone. While we were sitting on some lumber in his yard, resting, there came up two young fellows on horseback and said they would advise us to leave there, as the people in this neighborhood was very much opposed to us and was liable to mob us; but this did not scare us much as they were the ones that had made threats before and they only wanted to scare us.
He speaks of getting a birthday cake from his wife in Utah and sharing it with his missionary companions after which they repaired their bowery which a mob had burned the night before. Here is one final entry:
Elder S. R. Brown told me tonight all about the mob that attacked him and elder Spencer on the night of April 10, in Crenshaw Co. While returning home from a meeting with some saints. The mob was masked and loaded to the muzzel with hickory clubs Guns and pistols. They ordered them to strip their coats, But after their coats were off, by the spirit of God they persuaded them to let them go by promising to leave the state as soon as they could. They walked all night and arrived at Bro. Bradley’s just this morning. The governor is looking up the case and we hear he has some of them arrested.
While mobs no longer rage in the South, feelings of ill will are only obliquely mentioned in the press (“Romney fails to attract the ‘very conservative’ in South Carolina”). People looking at that will often exclaim that this does not mean that these people oppose Mitt on religious grounds, punctuating their objections that the most religious people happen to also be the most conservative. Indeed, as any statistics professor will explain early in whatever introductory course they might teach, correlation does not indicate causality. The evidence that the correlation means something more in this case, however, seems clearer than many will accept.
Providing an interesting perspective on the problem of Mitt’s religion, a research study at Vanderbilt University determined that “Bias against Mormonism may not keep Romney out of White House.” Nevertheless, the study reported that “20% of Republicans nationally would not vote for a ‘qualified Mormon’ for president.” That number rises to “31 percent of Southern evangelical Republicans” and tracks quite well with what we are seeing in the exit polls from Republican Primaries so far in various states.
To get a better idea of what is going on, I created the chart below from the various CNN Exit and Entrance Polls for this year’s Republican Primaries to analyze preferences among people who classify themselves as “White Evangelical/Born-Again Christian.” As shown, Mitt wins among these three candidates in those states where the concentration of Evangelical voters is less than 40%, but he falls way behind in the others. These also happen to be states that fit into one of two categories. First, in the case of New Hampshire, the state knows him well. Second, Nevada and Arizona each have above average-sized Mormon populations, which come to 6.4% for Nevada and 5.8% for Arizona. For comparison purposes, Georgia’s population is 0.7% Mormon. The higher concentrations in Nevada and Arizona perhaps reduce the “weirdness” factor of Mitt’s religion, and brings more Evangelicals to vote for him.
Looking at a video on the topic, however, we see comments by Professor Black, as well a couple of interviews that tell a slightly different story. In particular, the video illustrates what Morrill failed to include in his article: Mitt’s religion is indeed an issue for him in the South.
We get from that video a balanced view of what a few people in the South think of Mitt Romney and his candidacy. Beginning at 32 seconds in, one of the interviewees reveals the specific problem that Mitt faces:
I have some faith issues that are important to me, that he becomes a non-starter for me, that I’m more in line with Rick Santorum’s faith and values.
One has to ask: What is there in Mitt Romney successful family life and marriage of 43 years that will not pass muster for the most religious and conservative among us? Unfortunately, such phrasing now has been turned into a sort of code that communicates a very pernicious, sub rosa message.
Regrettably, this should not come as a surprise, given the history of the South I have already cited Indeed, the only surprise is that so many commentators and supposed experts continue to downplay the importance of the issue. As one more example, Lowell Brown, writing at Article VI Blog Tuesday evening, discussed the “elephant in the room” in the context of an interview that Bill Bennett did on Monday with Byron York on Bennett’s radio show. After discussing the primary elections in some detail:
They two of them eventually got to a fascinating question: Why does Santorum, a Catholic, win the Evangelical vote, but lose Catholics to Romney? The two wise men went over a wide range of possible reasons. Not once did they mention Evangelical bias against Romney over his Mormonism.
This is certainly not news to Mitt, who has not only seen the elephant in the room, but the animal’s feet have now have trampled and stomped on him on several occasions. He has expected opposition from the right on religious grounds since he first ran in 2008, but that opposition has been mostly silenced this time around. Despite the absence of more overt discussions and commentary, former Senator Robert Bennett from Utah recently said in an interview that religion plays an unfortunate part in the challenges Mitt faces. He quoted a political contact of his, who said that “If Mitt Romney were Presbyterian, he would be the Republican nominee.”
As the caucuses and primaries come and go, this fact remains ever present but hardly ever spoken: Not only would Mitt be the nominee were it not for the bigotry among us, he would be winning these contests by a landslide. Where he wins by sheer force of will (and yes, money!), his competitors are playing the game a bit differently. The most recent sad example comes from Pastor O’Neal Dozier from Florida who has called on Mitt to renounce his religion. Others are more subtle and of the “He does not share my values!” variety.
Whether directed at Mitt’s money, at his religion, or at him as a person, the prejudice we are seeing is real and ugly. It is reflected in the ballot box and exit polls, and now seems to be turning into an ugly stain on the carpet of our body politic. As a people, we have thrived in our great shrine of freedom of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” so beautifully described by Abraham Lincoln and built and sustained by the wisdom of our founding fathers. Their wisdom, inspired by a loving Father in Heaven, has given us the precious freedom that enables each of us to be who we want to be as well as to work and worship, which are all fundamental to our country.
Unfortunately, we are now witnessing something that is worse than prejudice and bigotry: An effort that has already met with some success to use that bigotry as a political tool to prevent someone like Mitt from providing the sort of leadership his record shows that he can provide. I will be providing some specific and alarming examples.