Muslims in Bible Belt Unlikely to Be Elected; LONGER THAN A LONGSHOT in Fact, Observers of Southern Politics Can't Even Remember a Candidate

By Brumley, Jeff | The Florida Times Union, May 2, 2010 | Go to article overview

Muslims in Bible Belt Unlikely to Be Elected; LONGER THAN A LONGSHOT in Fact, Observers of Southern Politics Can't Even Remember a Candidate


Brumley, Jeff, The Florida Times Union


Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY

The smart money says a snowball has a better chance you-know-where than a Muslim has being elected to statewide or national office from Northeast Florida - or anywhere else in the Bible Belt.

If the recent hullabaloo surrounding Parvez Ahmed's appointment to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission didn't confirm that, maybe this does: Observers of Southern politics and religion can't recall a single Muslim candidate running for major office.

"I thought about it, and I couldn't come up with any names," said Ken Wald, a political science professor and expert on religion and politics at the University of Florida.

"Of all the places, the South is the least likely for that to happen," Wald said.

The reason: The region is dominated by evangelical Protestantism, "a religion that has intellectual difficulties with religious diversity."

Not that the rest of the country is welcoming Muslims into public office with open arms.

There are just two Muslims in Congress. The first, from Minnesota, was elected to the House in 2006. The other is from Indiana. Both candidates caused consternation among conservatives nationwide.

"Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies," commentator Glenn Beck asked then Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, D-Minn. "I'm not accusing you of being an enemy, but that's the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way."

Sadie Fields, executive director of the Georgia Christian Alliance, said similar questions would plague any Muslim running for office in the South.

"The real stumbling block would be the trust factor," she said. "In light of the threats to our national security that occur on a semi-regular basis, I think it would be very difficult for a confessing Muslim to convince Christians to vote for them."

Evangelicals in particular feel that way about Islam, which relegates Jesus to mere prophet status, as well as Mormons, who have added to the Bible with the Book of Mormon.

The latter explains why Mormon Mitt Romney had to repeatedly speak about his faith during his unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2008.

"Some Christians are concerned that Mormons describe themselves as Christians," Wald said. "You used to hear the same thing about Catholics from evangelicals, who more or less felt the pope was the Antichrist."

But unlike Catholics, Mormons and Muslims have yet to enjoy the political clout that comes with being the largest single religious group in the nation, Wald added. Both groups typically rank well below other religious groups - but still above atheists - in political polls.

In Florida, a Muslim running for governor would have trouble raising money or getting their message past the accusations of connections to terrorist groups.

"If you had a Muslim who was born and bred in the United States, achieved success personally and had a record as a military hero, that is what it would take to dispel some of the images that are out there," Wald said.

QUESTIONS OF NATIONAL LOYALTY

Mario Piscatella doesn't think it would take that sterling of a resume for a Muslim to win office in Florida or anywhere else in the South.

It's about convincing voters a candidate is best qualified to improve their communities, said the political consultant and veteran Democratic campaign manager from St. Johns County.

"If the candidate got into the race to spread their Islamic faith, that's probably going to be a tough race," Piscatella said. "If it's because roads are in disrepair, then that's what they should be talking about."

One piece of advice he'd give a Muslim candidate is to give up trying to win over evangelicals and others who are convinced all Muslims are terrorists. "Those folks who were against Parvez were never his to get."

That means not trying to emphasize values Muslims share with conservative Christians, like viewing gay marriage, divorce and abortion as immoral. …

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