Monthly Archives: January 2012

A Moment With…Omar Sacirbey

By Sarah Breger

A June 2011 Pew poll found that 76 percent of Muslim Americans approved of President Obama’s performance in the White House—a figure far above the national average. The Muslim American community also voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates in 2004 and in 2008, a major shift from 2000, when more than three-quarters voted for Republican George W. Bush. Despite these numbers, many Muslims are disillusioned with the president and the changes they believe he promised but hasn’t delivered. While the Muslim electorate is far from monolithic, and its numbers make up just a small fraction of the country’s population, Muslim voting power may prove significant in a close election.

Moment’s managing editor Sarah Breger speaks with Omar Sacirbey, a Boston-based correspondent for the Religion News Service and other publications, on this often-overlooked portion of the electorate.

MM: You recently wrote an article on presidential hopeful Ron Paul’s support in the Muslim community. Is there a “Muslim vote” in America? What are some factors that contribute to the Muslim vote?

OB: There’s more diversity in the Muslim vote this time around than in past elections. There’s a number of reasons for that. The community is becoming more diverse in terms of immigrants and American-born Muslims, and Muslims who came here when they were very young. Regarding Ron Paul, there is a mix of factors as to why this is happening. One is disappointment in Obama. When Obama won the 2008 election Muslims were hopeful, but those hopes have been somewhat tempered. Now, three years into his administration, many Muslims are disappointed that he hasn’t gotten the United States out of Afghanistan; they’re disappointed that he hasn’t done more, in their view, for the Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and they’re disappointed in regards to civil rights issues, such as the Patriot Act and policies on indefinite detention, and so on. When they hear Ron Paul, they’re turned on by his statements on getting the United States out of Afghanistan and out of foreign engagements altogether; his desire to cut aid to Israel, indeed, to cut all foreign aid in general but again that he is including Israel; as well as his strong opposition to the Patriot Act and what a lot of Muslims—and others—see as draconian civil rights policies.

MM: Do Muslim Americans align with his social policies?

OB: There’s a mix. A lot of people are willing to overlook disagreements on these social issues in favor of these broader issues. Just like maybe some “values voters” might be willing to overlook Newt Gingrich’s divorces in favor of his conservative agenda.

MM: And are there areas where winning the Muslim vote is vital? 

OB: It’s hard to imagine the Muslim vote being a “make or break” kind of a vote, but it could make the difference in some states where there is a fairly large Muslim population, such as Michigan or Ohio, which are swing states. Possibly even Pennsylvania, where the Muslim population is probably smaller than in Michigan or in Ohio, but perhaps still big enough that in a state that’s going to be closely contested it could make a difference. There’s also a fairly significant Muslim population in smaller states, like Iowa. Again, it’s hard to see them making a huge difference, but if it’s going to be a closely contested election, every vote really will count.

MM: Are there candidates who are actively courting the Muslim vote?

OB: In this field—no. Romney, Gingrich, Santorum are viewed by Muslims as pretty much anti-Muslim candidates. I think you’d be hard pressed to find Muslims who support these guys. We will likely see similar behavior from Obama as in the past election, where a lot of Muslims were disappointed that when opponents would say, “Oh, he’s a Muslim,” or has Muslim sympathies, he wouldn’t say, “Well, I’m not a Muslim, but what’s wrong with being a Muslim?” like Colin Powell did. A lot of Muslims were disappointed in that, but others understood it and are willing this time around to forgive him for that

MM: Will the recently proposed anti-sharia legislation and surrounding discussions factor into voting decisions or serve to galvanize the Muslim vote in any way?

OB: It wouldn’t surprise me, because it has become such a prevalent issue since the whole process was initiated in Oklahoma—a lot of Muslims really are upset by this. They consider sharia to be personal and private and don’t want any kind of mixing between religion and government. They’re really offended by these types of actions, and scared by what they consider to be ignorance and hatred of their faith by these people who are in government. The anti-sharia movement has been a catalyst for many Muslims to become more active, even just getting out more in their communities. If you have a kid in your local elementary school, you’re maybe that much more likely to go to a PTA meeting, to go to a school board meeting, just getting out there and being visible. I think if that’s been the case, then it stands to reason that there could be a backlash against this anti-sharia movement, and a desire by Muslims to stand up and vote against people that are advocating these kinds of laws could be a factor that gets them out to the polls in November.

CAP’s “God in Politics” Forum

By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

The Center for American Progress in Washington, DC hosted a forum earlier this week on “God and Politics: Examining Religion in the 2012 Religion.” Jews were never mentioned in the 90-minute talk, but speakers raised some illuminating points about the country’s religious voters:

  • Changing Demographics: The white mainline Protestant population is in decline, says Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. While the Catholic population has been steady, the demographics are shifting—the number of white Catholics is dwindling as Hispanic Catholics are on the rise. These racial divisions are also reflected in voting patterns: non-white Christians voted heavily for President Obama, while white Christians were split.
  • Evangelicals and Mormons: Almost half of white evangelicals—49 percent—say Mormonism is not a Christian religion, slightly higher than the 47 percent who say they would be uncomfortable with a Mormon president, according to PRRI surveys. Even factoring in other factors like Mitt Romney’s moderate social views and his work at Bain Capital, Jones says, “In the data, we see a consistent sign that his religion, particularly among evangelical voters, is still playing an independent role.”
  • More Believe Obama is Muslim: Forty percent of Americans still say they don’t know Obama’s religion, and 18 percent say he’s Muslim. “That number has actually gone up from 12 percent since he’s come into office,” Jones says.
  • Religion and Favorability Rating: Jones explains the strong correlation between perception of religious difference and favorability rating: Of the 51 percent of Americans who say Obama’s religion is at least somewhat different than their own, only 7 approve of him. Similarly, those who say Mormonism is very different than their own religion favor Mitt Romney 20 percentage points below those who say Mormonism is similar to their own.
  • What All Religions Agree On: Six in ten Americans agree with the statement, “Society would be better off if the distribution of wealth was more equal.” Every major religious group agrees despite a stark partisan divide.
  • Trouble for Obama: Obama could lose this fall, says Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary. But only if four circumstances come together—evangelical voters show up in record numbers, white mainline Protestants and white Catholics sit this election out, Obama’s campaign has poor religious outreach, and if the Catholic bishops voice their discontent with the White House. “If you have those four, then the president could be in very big trouble,” he says.
  • Hispanic Vote: Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Hispanic Evangelical Coalition, says Hispanic evangelicals could be swing votes in several states this year. “The question, I think, is, are they voting around the immigration reform issue, or are they going to vote with their sisters and brothers in the wider evangelical communities around social conservative issues?”
  • Religious Intolerance: Since the anti-Catholic backlash against John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, “religious intolerance has mutated,” says Casey. “Now the targets are different, and they’re harder to detect because people have more social pressure to not admit it to a pollster. We do know that if you’re a Muslim, a Mormon, or if you’re unaffiliated, you’re in deep trouble if you’re running for elected office in the United States.”
  • Historic Anti-Mormonism: “This meme of Mormons not being trustworthy, of being secretive, of not being fully assimilated into the United States—this has been with us for more than a century,” says religion scholar and journalist Joanna Brooks. “So what Mitt Romney is working out and working through right now is more than a century in the making.”

A Jew Named Oscar?

Oscar nominations were announced yesterday, and Jews and Jewish-themed movies, as you might expect, were among the honorees. Woody Allen (yes, he’s Jewish!) racked up four nominations for “Midnight in Paris” (though nothing for Adrien Brody, whose version of Salvador Dali is the only way we want to imagine the artist); “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, is up for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor; Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” got a nod for Best Picture, among other nominations (We sneaked into this movie for five minutes before “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and, you know, it’s “War Horse.”); Jonah Hill is up for Best Supporting Actor (making up for the “Superbad” snub, natch); and in the Foreign Language category, office favorite “Footnote” from Israel (a Talmudic thriller? Yes, please!) faces off against “In Darkness,” a Holocaust story from Poland. In our January/February issue, Moment takes a look back at some notable Jewish Oscar winners from the past. Mazel tov to all the nominees!

A Case of Arab Democracy

Our January/February issue features the fourth in our series on Israel’s Arab citizens: this one focuses on the pursuit of Arab-Israelis for equal rights in the political arena, a quest that challenges the Jewish character of the state. Read about Knesset member Ahmad Tibi, Israel’s most visible and vocal Arab MK; Ghaida Rinawi Zoabi, co-founder and director of the Injaz Center for Professional Arab Governance, an organization that offers professional training for employees of municipal governments; and Hassan Jabareen (right), director of Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, a Haifa-based NGO that advocates for the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens.

What We’re Reading: Election Edition

by Sarah Breger

The Highlights

The new issue of the Jewish journal Sh’ma, which focuses on “the Jewish electorate in 2012,” is full of interesting pieces worth checking out. Of note is an essay by historian Jonathan Sarna on the role of the Jewish vote in past presidential elections. Sarna writes that the 1868 election was the first election that saw a focus on the Jewish vote; Republican candidate and Civil War hero General Ulysses S. Grant worried that his 1862 order expelling all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi—his military district—would come back to haunt him.

On the contrary, Sarna writes:

In fact, a number of prominent Jews supported Grant, preferring his message of unity and peace to the openly racist message of his Democratic opponents, who opposed Reconstruction and promised to abolish black suffrage. Jews in that election faced a conundrum that may sound familiar to readers today: Should they vote for a party they considered bad for the country just to avoid voting for a man who had been bad to the Jews?

Two other noteworthy bits of trivia from the article: The great Jewish switch to the Democratic party only came in 1928, and Jimmy Carter captured only 45 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980.

On Our Desktop

  • The wonderful Ariel Levy’s New Yorker profile on Callista Gingrich.
  • The Christian Right is dying.
  • Proof that feathered hair and floral dress shirts will, in fact, go out of style one day.

Romney and Mormonism

By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

While Mitt Romney has secured his front-runner status in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, questions about his religion still linger in many people’s minds—Will evangelical Christians vote for him? How would a Mormon act as president? And what do Mormons really believe?

For a closer look at the intersection of Mormonism and American politics, Moment speaks with journalist and religion scholar Joanna Brooks. A veteran of the Mormon feminist and LGBT movements, Brooks covers Mormonism, faith and politics for ReligionDispatches.org. She is author of American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of African-American and Native American Literatures, and was named one of “50 Politicos to Watch” by Politico.com.

MM: What are the biggest misconceptions about Mormonism today?

JB: Surveys show that a large portion of everyday Americans still imagine that contemporary Mormons practice polygamy. This is not true. People who practice polygamy are members of ultra-Orthodox splinter groups who live in remote regions of Utah and Arizona—they don’t represent the mainstream Latter Day Saints church with 6 million members. But it’s been very difficult to eradicate that connection from the contemporary imagination.

I think a second misconception is that all Mormons think alike and plan to vote alike for Mitt Romney. That’s not true—there’s political diversity among the Mormon community on the right and on the left. There’s a solid 10-15 percent of Mormons who are Democrats and will vote for Barack Obama this fall. And on the right, there are some for whom Romney is simply not conservative enough. Everyone feels a strong kinship to Romney because of our shared tradition but not everyone’s going to vote for him.

With Romney looking more and more like the GOP nominee, so many people are writing about Mormonism in the media, but very few of them are actually familiar with contemporary Mormon communities. Every day I read pieces from The New York Times to Rolling Stone where authors who have very marginal knowledge of Mormon theology and the Mormon community are weighing in on the tradition and cherry-picking elements of what they know and trying to draw connections with Romney’s campaign. Mormons have been a fairly insular community: Mormons tend to marry amongst ourselves and for the first hundred years of our history we were geographically isolated in the American West. We still don’t have a large contingent of talking heads.

MM: How do you think religion will play out in South Carolina this weekend, and in the general election this fall?

JB: I think we’re seeing less knee-jerk anti-Mormonism than we did four years ago. Four years ago there were campaigns about Mormon polygamy, tying Mitt to arcane, ultra-Orthodox strains of thought—sort of like making Joe Leiberman out to be a Hasidic Jew. Random things 19th century theologians said were being plastered on post cards and mailed out to South Carolina voting households in 2008. But we are seeing less overt anti-Mormon messaging at this point in the campaign. I think it’s to the credit of the GOP field that folks aren’t smearing Mitt Romney by smearing his religion. Where people are opposing him on religious grounds is for not being conservative enough on social issues. So for example, supporters of Rick Santorum were using his softness on abortion rights while he was governor of Massachusetts as ammunition against him. I think the old prejudices remain, but that’s not what’s being openly discussed.

MM: How are Mormons responding to Romney’s candidacy, and what was his role as a bishop years ago? What about Huntsman?

JB: It’s important to know that there are about 30,000 LDS bishops worldwide. We’re an all-lay clergy; any man who’s of age and is responsible can come up for a job as bishop. So Romney’s not necessarily special because he served in church leadership—that’s a pretty common experience for adult men in our community.

There are a great number of Romney supporters and a lot of people feel a sense of kinship because of our shared culture and our shared tradition. Huntsman too, but Romney was always more popular. Romney’s really been out in front and has captured loyalties with a great number of Mormons very early on. He has been using family networks among Mormons to bring in donors, bundlers and volunteers. But Huntsman was a very well regarded governor of Utah—people like his as well.

MM: What are some of the issues that are most important to Mormon voters today?

JB: Ah, yes. Mormon voters. All over the map. But lots of us depend on public schools for our kids and care about public education. Many Mormons are also deeply concerned about the national debt. LGBT issues have been brought to the fore in LDS communities—with most Mormons leaning conservative, but a strong minority in vocal support of LGBT equality. And a small but growing contingent of LDS people are committed environmentalists.

MM: Do you think Romney and Huntsman represent a breakthrough of Mormonism into mainstream culture? To adapt a Jewish phrase, has their presence in the race been “good for Mormons”?

JB: This is a fascinating moment. I think every American minority has moments when the mainstream realizes it has to come to grips with another culture living in their midst. Mormons have been here in the United States since the beginning. We’ve been assimilating into the American mainstream since the early 20th century. We’re between 5 and 6 million. We’re not just in the Intermountain West. So this is a fascinating moment of reflection for us, as America comes to terms with its lack of knowledge about us.

But it’s also a fascinating moment as Mormons are being asked to reflect on aspects of our past that are controversial. There’s a lot of press about the historic ban on African American priest holding, which in my opinion was a mistake and never had a doctrinal basis. So the issues about our past that are uncomfortable to talk about are going to be brought up and how we respond—if we’re willing to respond with candor and with some self-searching—is going to be a real test of our character.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Moment

Know a kid who loves to read and write? Tell her about Moment’s annual Publish-A-Kid contest, in which we invite young readers to write reviews of some of our favorite childhood books. The contest is accepting submissions through February 15.. Winning reviews may be published in an upcoming issue. Read last year’s winning submissions here, and find out more about the contest on our website.