Race, religion collide in 2012

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are greeted after arriving at the airport, Saturday, May 5, 2012 in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

How unthinkable it was, not so long ago, that a presidential election would pit a candidate fathered by an African against another condemned as un-Christian.

Yet here it is: Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney, an African-American and a white Mormon, representatives of two groups that have endured oppression to carve out a place in the United States.

How much progress has America made against bigotry? By November, we should have some idea.

Perhaps mindful of the lingering power of prejudice, both men soft-pedal their status as racial or religious pioneers.

But these things “will be factors whether they’re explicitly stated or not, because both Obama and Romney are minorities,” said Nancy Wadsworth, co-editor of the anthology “Faith and Race in American Political Life.”

Mormons are 1.7 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center.

African-Americans are 12.6 percent

“Americans like to obsess about ways that people are different,” said Wadsworth, a political science professor at the University of Denver.

Voters of all types say that a candidate’s race or religious beliefs should not be cause for bias, “but Americans are really conflicted about this, and they talk out of both sides of their mouth.”

In an October 2011 Associated Press-GfK poll, 21 percent of respondents said they would be less likely to cast a presidential vote for a Mormon. Four percent said they would be less likely to vote for a black person.

An AP poll during the 2008 campaign found that nearly 40 percent of white Americans had at least a partly negative view of black people.

The gap between America’s high-minded ideals and narrow-minded practice is not new.

The Constitution forbids a religious test for president, yet the religion of presidential candidates historically has been a major issue, though nearly all have been Protestant.

Thomas Jefferson, who coined the phrase “separation between church and state,” was decried as godless.

Nearly 160 years later, John Kennedy was tarred as a Roman Catholic who would answer to the pope instead of the American people.

In 1787, the same colonists who had demanded equal rights in their dealings with England wrote a Constitution that reduced blacks to three-fifths of a person. Nearly 80 years would pass before that changed, and another century before blacks would be assured the vote.

Obama remains the sole member of the most exclusive club in the world, racial minorities who were nominated for president by a major party.

In 2012 it’s unlikely that more than a smattering of die-hard bigots will be repelled by both presidential choices.

But even well-intentioned people can be influenced by the powerful emotional pull of these issues.