As former Utah Republican Senator, Bob Bennett, lay dying at George Washington University Hospital in his battle with pancreatic cancer and then partial paralysis from a stroke, he called his wife Joyce and son Jim over to his bed to express his last wish.
Quietly and with a slight slur in his voice he said, “Are there any Muslims in the hospital? 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.”
Earlier when he was in better health, as he moved through an airport traveling home from Washington, D. C. to Utah for Christmas, Bennett walked up to a woman wearing a hijab telling her he was glad she was in the United States, and apologized on behalf of the Republican Party, especially for Trump’s call to temporarily ban all Muslims from traveling to this country.
Possibly for Bennett, his connection with members of minoritized and often vilified religious groups stemmed from his own Mormon background. For Bennett to slip on the shoes of Muslim Americans may have been a fairly close fit since his faith too has come under constant attack since its founder, Joseph Smith, introduced Mormonism and the Latter Day Saints Movement in the early 19th century C.E. During the Republican presidential primaries in 2012, for example, members of his own Party referred to Mitt Romney’s Mormonism as “a cult,” a belief inspired by the Devil, and something un-Christian.
Bob Bennett made visible the noble and all-to-rarely expressed notion of deep and profound empathy. In the truest sense, “empathy” has been defined as the symbolic ability to step into another person’s shoes and stroll down the streets of another’s neighborhood without actually traveling. Though Bennett walked in comparable shoes down his own neighborhood streets, his courageous actions were no less laudable and certainly no less empathetic. He related to and connected with the feelings and experiences of Muslim Americans across his own parallel feelings and experiences.
But what about for people who claim never to have experienced incidents of marginalization, of feelings of being, looking, or thinking differently from others in certain contexts in their lives? Would they find the empathy hill steeper and more difficult to climb?