Utah GOP Senator's final wish: Apologize to Muslims

A Republican former senator's deathbed wish to apologize for anti-Muslim rhetoric is echoed by many others whose politics sometimes clash with their faith and ethics. 

Scott Sommerdorf/ The Salt Lake Tribune via AP
Friends and family watch as former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett's casket is taken from the Federal Heights Ward Chapel for it's short trip to interment services at the Salt Lake City Cemetery, Saturday, May 14, 2016.

Former Sen. Bob Bennett (R) spent his last moments in a hospital bed. But the three-term senator from Utah had a final wish.

"Are there any Muslims in the hospital?” he asked his wife and son, as they told the Daily Beast. "I'd love to go up to every single one of them to thank them for being in this country, and apologize to them on behalf of the Republican Party for Donald Trump."

The deathbed wish of a Republican senator from one of the nation's most conservative states highlights the complexity of politics, faith, and neighborly relations, as Americans juggle their complex identities when deciding which politicians to embrace.

For former Senator Bennett, the request to welcome Muslims was not a sudden change of heart. For months, he had viewed anti-Muslim rhetoric inside his party with alarm, and had begun to go out of his way to greet Muslim women wearing headscarves at the airport, his wife told the Daily Beast's Tim Mak.

"I think he got increasingly troubled as he saw the Republican Party becoming the party of Trump," his son Jim Bennett told NBC News. "I think Trump's rise was really the motivation for him to recognize the importance of expressing his desire for inclusion. He just felt it was his responsibly to push back."

A Republican senator from Arizona took on the same responsibility in December. One week after presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump's call to ban Muslim visitors, Sen. Jeff Flake (R) visited a mosque with his family, the Arizona Republic reported.

"We are a better country than has been on display this week," Sen. Flake told a warm audience. "I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in America, as well as those of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhism and other faiths and other traditions, hold to the American ideal and the Constitutional tenet of freedom of religion." 

Although Bennett was swept from public office by the wave of Tea Party populism in 2010, his sentiments are not unusual in Utah. The state's voters have not supported a Democratic president since 1964, but they served Mr. Trump a resounding defeat in the 2016 primary election, where he received 14 percent of the vote, coming in third behind Ted Cruz with 69 percent and John Kasich with 17 percent. 

The move stemmed partly from a broad rejection of anti-refugee rhetoric as many Utah voters – roughly 65 percent of whom are Mormon – view Muslims' current situation with empathy, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told NPR in March:

We have a history as a state that was founded because of exiled Mormons who were kicked out of other parts of the country and actually had one state put out what was called an exterminate order. . . . We even had a president, Rutherford B. Hayes, who said to Europe, please do not let any more Mormons migrate to America. So we have a history of knowing a little bit what that is like to be discriminated against because of your religion.

Utah-favorite Senator Cruz, however, has also voiced positions criticized as anti-Muslim, from suggesting that fewer refugees be accepted from IS- or Al Qaeda impacted regions, which would effectively excluded all Syrians, to calling for police patrols of Muslims neighborhoods. 

Governor Herbert opined that his state might have embraced the Texan's candidacy because he "actually does something about the illegal immigration problem, which I think is much more of a serious problem than those who come in through the refugee program" – another issue where former Senator Bennett was at odds with some fellow Utahns, Mormon or no. 

According to his son Jim, Bennett "felt like immigration required a comprehensive solution," he told NBC. "And that didn't go over well with Utah delegates who just thought that building a big wall, in a Donald Trump fashion, was the only way to go."

Following tradition, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not endorse a primary candidate. It did, however, issue a statement on religious pluralism in December, reiterating its founder's statement that, "I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any denomination" as for a Mormon.

For some, however, concerns for safety at home ultimately trumps compassion for newcomers. "Utah should immediately suspend the acceptance of Syrian refugees until we are sure the screening process works," Mormon businessman Jonathan Johnson, who is challenging Herbert for the 2016 gubernatorial nomination, told The Wall Street Journal in March. 

In April, the president of the Mormon women's organization, Linda Burton, announced a new program urging rank-and-file Mormons to befriend and help refugees in their area. She told two stories in parallel – one about early Mormon pioneers who were rescued by strangers following a winter trek, and another about modern-day refugees in need.

"There are more than 60 million refugees, including forcibly displaced people, worldwide. Half of those are children," Ms. Burton said in her speech from Salt Lake City. "I have wondered many times since meeting these wonderful [refugee] women, 'What if their story were my story?'"

Moving between political, religious, and historic identities is not always smooth, and this election season has inspired soul-searching among many staunch Republicans. Peter Gregory, a graduate student in Utah who was active in Mr. Kasich's candidacy, told The Christian Science Monitor that his fellow Mormon Republicans have actively debated how their political stances lined up with their religious identity. 

"I've seen people say, 'How can you support Donald Trump when his positions are against what the church says?'" he told the Monitor in March. 

Bennett was troubled by the complex interplay of identity, as he saw a repeat of his own religion's history in the current wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, his son said. 

"That was something my father felt very keenly – recognizing the parallel between the Mormon experience and the Muslim experience," Jim Bennett told the Daily Beast. "[He] wanted to see these people treated with kindness, and not ostracized."

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