At Ballot, Black Mormon Couple Weighs Faith, Race

With two African-American candidates and two Mormon candidates vying for the presidency, black Mormons find themselves at the political intersection of race and religion. Host Michel Martin speaks with two black members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Don Harwell and his wife, Jerri, who have different political viewpoints.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: And now we turn to Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality, including, at times, how faith and politics collide.

And if you've been following the presidential campaign so far, then you've probably noticed that the candidates' religious beliefs are already a part of the conversation. Religion, like race, remains a sensitive issue in public life, so we decided to call upon two guests who themselves live at the intersection of this debate. They are Don and Jerri Harwell.

We cam across Don Harwell in an article by TheGrio.com about the political abuse of black Mormons. This year, for the first time, there happen to be two members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints running for president: Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney. There also happen to be two African-Americans, the incumbent, President Barack Obama, and on the GOP side, Herman Cain.

Don Harwell is the president of the Genesis Group. That's a network within the church for African-American Mormons. Jerri Harwell is an assistant professor at Salt Lake Community College, and they're with us now from Salt Lake City.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

JERRI HARWELL: Thank you.

DON HARWELL: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So Don, let me just start by noting that both you and your wife Jerri are registered independents. So I'm curious what characteristics you look for in a candidate. And Jerri, I'm going to ask you the same question. No listening to his answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HARWELL: Okay.

HARWELL: The main thing for me is integrity. If I can listen to the candidate and I can pull out that there's real integrity in where they're trying to go, that's what gets my first interest.

MARTIN: Okay. Jerri, what about you?

HARWELL: What I look for in candidates, characteristics would be honesty and integrity. I believe too many politicians, in their campaigns - even those we see at the national level - are PR-driven. We see candidates saying what a particular market or audience wants to hear, and I don't hear 100 percent complete integrity among the candidates.

MARTIN: Okay. So Jerri, while we're talking with you, is there anybody who does appeal to you at this juncture?

HARWELL: Yes and no. I haven't been following it too closely. Last go-round, I listened a great deal to Ron Paul. So I'll probably pay particular attention to him. But I will wait until the Republicans narrow the field down.

MARTIN: Okay. And so is Barack Obama not part of the conversation for you?

HARWELL: He is, as in he will be one of the candidates, but to be honest, even though I'm black - black American Indian - I was not particularly a Barack Obama supporter. And that surprised people, as if, oh, I'm black and I'm not supporting Obama?

MARTIN: All right. Don Harwell, what about you? Anybody appeal to you at the moment?

HARWELL: Yeah. Mitt Romney and Cain. I think both of them have the experience - business experience it's going to take to pull this country out of the mess we're in right now. Everything the current administration does has a tax built into it, and I'm just real surprised that they don't come up with a better way.

We're paying $3.39 a gallon for regular gas right now so some guy can retire with $400 million while the economy's going down. It makes no sense to me why somebody hasn't figured out how to get these gas prices down, because that would definitely put money in the economy.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We are hearing from a couple who happen to be both African-American and Mormon, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. We're talking about the factors that influence their choices for president in a year in which two members of the Mormon Church and two African-Americans are running for president.

So Jerri, I want to go back to something you expressed earlier. You expressed some irritation that you feel it goes on assumption because you're African-American, that you would support Barack Obama. And on the one hand, I understand your point. But on the other hand, the vast majority of African-Americans did support Barack Obama in the last election. And what would be wrong with being pleased to have somebody of your background in the running in the same way that, you know, Greek-Americans were excited when Michael Dukakis was running?

HARWELL: Don't misunderstand me. There's absolutely nothing wrong with having someone of the same racial or ethnic background as myself running. I am extremely proud we have our first African-American president. That doesn't mean I have to support him as a candidate.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. And Don, what about you? I'm just - are you excited about the fact that there are two members of your church running this year - which I don't believe has ever happened before in history.

HARWELL: But I don't believe they're running as members of the church. They're running as men trying to become president of the United States. My affiliation to Mitt Romney is - and Jon Huntsman is we're all Mormons, and we all have the same background. And I believe we're striving to have integrity and honesty. That would be my draws to them.

After that, they've got to show me something that they're going to do something to change this economy. They're going to have to make things better than they are now. And if I may - I'm throwing this in. I was just like Jerri. I was very happy to see an African-American called to president. Now, I'm disappointed as heck.

MARTIN: Because?

HARWELL: I don't think he has lived anywhere up to the things that he said he was going to do.

MARTIN: Did you vote for him?

HARWELL: No. I'm a conservative. I'm not a Democrat.

MARTIN: Okay. But talk a little bit more if you would, though, about - I mean, you do belong to an African-American group within your church, which suggests to me that, you know, there are affinities that you think are important. So I'm just curious, like, how - what role do you think those parts of your life play in your own decision-making about matters apart from that? Does that make sense?

HARWELL: In a way, yes. But I guess the thing that comes to mind for me is, too many times, I've seen preachers from all faiths try to direct their church to vote in a certain way. The thing I really appreciate about the Mormon Church, we're not even allowed to talk politics across the pulpit. If you want to talk politics, take it out of the chapels where we meet.

MARTIN: So you feel that, like, that's kind of a private matter that should determine how you live as an individual, but it shouldn't be something that's part of your calculation when you're making a decision about a public role?

HARWELL: Exactly, because nobody's coming in the voting booth with me. At least they're not supposed to.

MARTIN: Jerri, what about you? How do you feel that - being both race and religion - what role do you think it plays in your decision-making about candidates?

HARWELL: Race, I am inherently born with. Religion was a choice I made as an adult. How does it play out in politics? Again, I'm more concerned about someone's character. An adulterer, in any religion, I would frown upon. If his wife can't trust him, or a spouse, a husband can't trust his wife, why should I? So again, it comes back to that integrity, not the label, such as religion.

MARTIN: So the idea that you have two members of your church running for president, that doesn't do anything for you?

HARWELL: No. Absolutely not. I did not support Mitt Romney in the last go-round, although someone sitting across from me made a donation in my name...

MARTIN: Oh.

HARWELL: ...that he will never do again.

MARTIN: Oh.

HARWELL: So if you see my name associated with him...

HARWELL: She just doesn't know him like I know him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Okay.

HARWELL: Michel, just know, my mother is turning over in her grave to know I am sleeping with a Republican.

HARWELL: I'm not a Republican. I'm a conservative. There's a difference.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, we'll let you two sort that out. Don Harwell is the president of the Genesis Group. That's an official auxiliary group of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It's a network for African-American Mormons and their friends and family. Jerri Harwell is his wife, and she is an assistant professor at Salt Lake Community College. And they were both kind enough to join us from Salt Lake City, Utah.

Mr. and Mrs. Harwell, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HARWELL: Thanks for inviting us.

HARWELL: Thank you.

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