There are plenty of people -- including a number within my own family -- who were convinced they would not see the election of a black president in their lifetime. Having lived through the indignities of segregation, I can certainly understand how the thought of a black man becoming the most powerful elected official in the country simply seemed beyond the realm of possibility. But President Obama's first few years in office appear to have confirmed a fundamental shift in the role identity politics play in a candidate's so-called electability. Racial identity is no longer the greatest barrier to elected office. Religious identity is.
I first began to ponder this shift during the 2008 presidential election when I realized that I seemed to be spending nearly as much time on various television programs discussing the impact that rumors regarding President Obama's religious identity might have on his campaign, as I did discussing the impact that his racial identity may have. It seemed to be the ultimate irony. A viable black candidate gets a real shot at the presidency and being black ends up being the least of his problems. Now before I get inundated with angry e-mails, I want to be clear. I am in no way suggesting that President Obama's race does not matter nor am I saying that it did not cost him any votes and has not inspired some of the vitriol directed at him. I am saying, however, that it may not matter as much as the fact that his middle name is Hussein and his father is from Kenya and in the minds of nearly a quarter of the population that means President Obama must be a Muslim, and in their eyes unfit for the presidency.
It was this realization that in part inspired my new book. (Warning: Shameless plug on the way.) In a desperate attempt to use a different part of my brain for a change, I had been in discussions with my agent about doing a fun, lighthearted novel about what happens to a group of friends when one of them decides to run for president. And just for kicks, yes the candidate was going to be handsome, charismatic, in his forties and African-American. But the more the attacks on candidate Obama's religious identity escalated, the more fascinated I became with this idea of religious identity as one of the last remaining acceptable forms of prejudice, and realized that subject would make a far more interesting book. For instance, today even a staunch conservative who is opposed to gay marriage would be inclined to choose their words very carefully in explaining why he or she may be unwilling to vote for an openly gay candidate. But if Tom Cruise ran for President there are plenty of people who would have no problem citing Scientology as a reason they were choosing not to support him.
Recently, rising GOP star Herman Cain has drawn criticism, but just as many cheers for his tough stance on Muslim Americans in a potential Cain presidential administration. By the same token much of the hostility directed at President Obama has been conveniently cloaked in this strange denunciation of one form of prejudice, coupled with the embrace of another kind. The argument goes something like this: "I don't dislike him because he's black. But I do believe he's a Muslim." As if that's not quite so bad.
But Muslims are not the only religious group still facing rampant prejudice on the campaign trail. More than fifty years after President Kennedy delivered his landmark speech on his religious identity, I had a relative who said during the 2004 election that they were "uncomfortable" with the fact that Sen. John Kerry is a practicing Catholic. (If they happen to read this piece, Thanksgiving dinner is going to be awfully interesting.) And while the mainstream media and his primary opponents have focused on "Obamneycare" as being former Governor Mitt Romney's primary Achilles heel this election, the reality is that being Mormon remains one of his greatest potential liabilities--as unfair as that may be.
And then of course there's Sen. Joe Lieberman. Though these days he may be better known for political liabilities of his own making (such as campaigning with Sen. John McCain over the nominee from the party he spent most of his career with during the 2008 election), his religious identity was a topic of discussion during the 2000 election when he was Vice-president Gore's running mate. And not always a topic of discussion in a good way.
While hate groups expend a lot of time and energy hating people of all colors, shapes and sizes for all sorts of kooky reasons, the two groups that have long rankled the David Dukes of the world the most are blacks and Jews. This disturbing place of distinction as among the most persecuted groups in history has resulted in a unique bond between the two communities--a bond that was strengthened during the civil rights movement. Many Jewish Americans fought alongside black Americans in the struggle for equality. (Among them Sen. Joe Lieberman who was a Freedom Rider.) Two of the movement's most high profile martyrs, students Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were Jewish Americans. Their deaths, alongside African-American volunteer, James Chaney, are credited with being a pivotal turning point in transforming how the rest of the country viewed what had long been perceived as a "Southern problem." (The story of their disappearance and murder inspired the film "Mississippi Burning.")
So after a lot of reflection I decided to write a book about this bond, specifically about a black candidate, whose religious and racial identity is shaped by being raised by Jewish parents and how his atypical background impacts his run for the presidency. (Not to worry. There's still the fun storyline involving the candidate's friends for you beach readers out there.)
Here are the questions I'd like to challenge readers, and commenters on this site, to consider and hopefully discuss, perhaps even debate. How close do you honestly think our country is to electing a non-practicing, non-traditional Christian* as president -- Jewish, Muslim, Mormon or otherwise? Do you think religious diversity matters in our political process? (Click here to see a list of The Most Influential Non-Practicing Christian Politicians in American Politics.)
And how close do you think we are to electing a dual-or triple -- minority as president? For instance could President Obama have been elected were he a black candidate and a non-practicing Christian? Could a black, Hispanic or Jewish female be elected?
I recently noted in an interview that while I don't consider my book, "The GQ Candidate" to be based on President Obama, per se, I do know that had my agent tried selling a book about a viable black presidential candidate five years ago, she and I would have been laughed out of the office of every major publisher out there. But now, the idea of a black president is no longer laughable. My hope is that one day soon the idea that Americans are willing to elect a president who may not agree with all of their religious views, may not be considered so laughable either.
*Note: The term non-traditional Christian is used to denote that many Mormons identify themselves as Christian, even if this label is challenged by Christians from other denominations.
This piece originally appeared on TheLoop21.com for which Goff is a Contributing Editor.
Follow Keli Goff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/keligoff