Shaking hands with history

February 1, 2008

I once heard Oprah Winfrey tell the story of seeing the Supremes for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. This was in the Sixties when about the only black people on television seemed to be athletes, dancers and Diahann Carroll on the carefully scripted “Julia.” As soon as they spotted Diana Ross, Oprah and her friends and family all immediately called each other and said — well, I’m not going to say what they said, because it sounds racist coming from anyone but her. Suffice it to say it was a big deal then to see black people on national television.

Things have changed, and isn’t it wonderful? (Two words: Denzel Washington.) Black people are a major part of every level of the entertainment industry, and have made great strides everywhere else. Okay, I’m not naive. I know things aren’t perfect, and that there are still acres of acrimony and discrimination, but things are better. (Two words: Condoleeza Rice. Or Colin Powell. Or Barack Obama.) I remember as a child seeing pictures of segregated water fountains and benches in the South, and I realize much of this change has happened during my lifetime. I was utterly thrilled several years ago when I got to shake hands with Rosa Parks. I felt like I was touching history.

Mormons are a lot like Oprah was. Mormons on television! Donny and Marie! Gladys Knight! Ken Jennings! The Mormon Tabernacle Choir! Larry King’s wife, Shawn! Harry Reid! Carmen Rasmussen! Glenn Beck! Larry King and Mike Wallace interviewing President Gordon B. Hinckley! We were accepted, we were loved, we were admired. We were finally breaking into the mainstream.

Or so we thought. Two words: Mitt Romney. As the Deseret News posted, an op-ed piece by Barry Cleveland in the Carni (Ill.) Times that was picked by a variety of blogs pretty well sums it up:

We Americans are more tolerant than we used to be. That’s not altogether a good thing. We’re more accepting of evil and silliness than we once were. But we’re also more inclined to welcome people of other races or religions into the mainstream, and that’s a positive step. Until 1960, the American presidency was the exclusive province of Protestants. We picked presidents of many persuasions (all white and all male, of course)–Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians, Congregationalists, Quakers and men affiliated with the Disciples of Christ and Dutch Reformed Church, as well as the son of a Jehovah’s Witness.

And then, in 1960, we did the once unimaginable and elected a Roman Catholic, John F. Kennedy. Since then we’ve further expanded our horizons. Millions voted in 2004 for an Orthodox Jew (Joe Lieberman) for vice president. And it appears quite possible that we’ll choose a woman or a black man for president next year. Who would have thought even 50 years ago that this would be possible?

And yet, if the polls are correct, there’s a line we still haven’t stepped across.

Millions of Americans say they won’t vote for a Mormon. That’s bad news for Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, successful businessman and 2002 Olympic Games chairman. Romney isn’t running for pastor, prophet or pope–he just wants to be president–but many Americans say they won’t vote for him simply because he’s a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes called the LDS Church or Mormon Church). Why? It all comes down, in my opinion, to two things: ignorance and fear.

Despite the healthy cynicism I inherited from my convert father, in the last several weeks, as the polls have come out indicating the true temperature of the American people regarding Mormonism, I’ve been surprised and dismayed. Mormons have been part of the American fabric for more than 150 years. Indeed, that fabric is an intrinsic part of our make up. We work. We vote. We get elected. We pay taxes—and tithing. We educate our children. We pledge allegiance to the flag. We die in American wars. We take care of our own. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” What’s not to like about us? I’ve been trudging through the snow the last two weeks, shaking my head about all of this.

And then, on Sunday, President Gordon B. Hinckley died, not unexpectedly but sadly for all of us who loved him, at 97. In addition to all of his other good works, it was his media genius that has brought the best of the Church to the attention of the media and subsequently to the world. His influence on the reach and scope of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, for instance, is almost measureless, and his tireless travel, even into his nineties, throughout the world put a face on Mormonism for people of many, many nations, both Mormon and non-Mormon. And he was utterly fearless in the face of tough questions from media pit bulls like Mike Wallace, who was charmed by him.

So I have been pleased — and comforted — by the response of the media and the world to his passing. Despite all the rancor about the Church over the past weeks, President Hinckley is being remembered, fittingly, as a great man.

“With his buoyant personality and affinity for public relations,” said the NYTimes, “Mr. Hinckley made Mormonism more familiar to the public and more accepted in the Christian fold.” Newsweek had an extensive story, extolling the expansive growth of the Church and profiling President Thomas S. Monson, his likely successor. And Time Magazine credits President Hinckley for Mitt Romney being able to have any sort of campaign at all:

Gordon B. Hinckley will be remembered for a lot of things within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose President and Prophet he was until his death Sunday at 97. His world travels, for instance, and the corresponding expansion of the church abroad; his modest redesign of Mormon Temples, which enabled their proliferation and thus the participation of many more Mormons outside of Utah in key Church activities. But for the rest of the country, he may be credited as the man who helped make Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy possible.

…[W]ere it not for Hinckley’s relentless 20-year publicity campaign to assure fellow Christians that Mormons, as he insisted, were not “weird,” Romney would have had a much more difficult time overcoming the impression that many have of his faith.

“He was a tireless worker and a talented communicator who was respected in his community and beloved by his congregation,” said President Bush. Barack Obama cancelled a pre-Super Tuesday trip to Utah so as to not interfere with the mourning. And even the usually grumpy Salt Lake Tribune has been falling all over itself with tributes.

They may not like us, but they liked him. And so did I. I shook hands with him, too, and I felt like I was touching not just history, but eternity. God bless you, President Hinckley.

One Response to “Shaking hands with history”

  1. What a beautifully written article. Thank you for outlining things so intelligently and thoughtfully. President Hinckley would be proud. Today one reporter stated that Gordon B. Hinckley was “the people’s prophet”. All who knew him, loved and respected him. He stood for something. He was intelligent, witty, well-read, kind, understanding, and had abiding integrity. He was ever diligent about reaching out to others of all race, creed, religion, political persuasion and nationality. He urged everyone to “be a little kinder” , “stand a little taller” and “go forward with faith – the best is yet to come!”

    May we ever strive to follow in his enduring footsteps.

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