‘There’s Always Something We Can Offer Someone Else’

An interview with Mallory McMorrow
Sen. Mallory McMorrow

On April 19, Mallory McMorrow, Democratic State Senator of Michigan, delivered a speech in the chamber of the Michigan State Capitol. It instantly struck a chord on social media, and has since been viewed by millions of people around the world. Pushing back forcefully against a Republican colleague’s accusations of “grooming and sexualizing children” as well as defending her support of LGBTQ people, McMorrow emphasized her Christian faith and Catholic upbringing as an inspiration for her political outlook and her insistence on taking the side of the marginalized. This interview originally aired on the Commonweal Podcast and has been edited for clarity and length.

Dominic Preziosi: What has been the response to your remarks? Did you ever think the speech would generate such attention?

Mallory McMorrow: No, certainly not! It’s been overwhelming, but in a really positive way. People from all walks of life have reached out: seniors, young people, parents of gay and trans kids. They told us it felt so reassuring and wonderful to hear their kids described as people, and that it really mattered. One older gay man in particular told me how good it felt for his life of service to be recognized, instead of being targeted for belonging to the LGBTQ community. He’s been involved in soup kitchens and taken care of sick and needy family members for many years. I’m not part of the LGBTQ community, but he thanked me for taking a stand on his behalf.

DP: You said that you wanted to reclaim faith from people who are using it as “a weapon to hate other people.” What were you paying attention to in Michigan and elsewhere that brought you to this point?

MM: When you run for office, you’re always asking groups, newspapers, and other outlets to endorse your candidacy. And you end up filling out a lot of forms: “What’s your name?,” “Where do you live?,” “Are you married?,” “Do you have kids?,” and so on. Then there’s a line for religion. It’s usually just a one-word answer. And I’ve never really known how to answer it.

For me, as for a lot of people, faith is a really important part of my life. But it’s also more complicated than just one word. I was raised Catholic, and I have to acknowledge that the Catholic Church itself has a dark history—and current history as well. Think of the abuse crisis. Faith can be incredibly powerful, and a source of hope. But it can also be weaponized. So we have to recognize that when we see it in the world, and respond to it.

DP: Some who listened to your speech heard unusually compelling and familiar language. You talked about CCD, and referenced Fr. Ted Hesburgh, the long-time president of your alma mater, Notre Dame, without explaining either. What was your intent in drawing on these parts of your upbringing and experience?

MM: In part, I was trying to signal to people who also consider themselves people of faith that I’m not making this up—that I know what I’m talking about. Stories are important, and the beauty of every story lies in the richness of the details. I wanted to include enough of them to say: this is real, this is part of me, and this is my story. It was a nod to those who know what that means; for those who don’t, it didn’t take anything away from what I was trying to say.

DP: You also said that Fr. Hesburgh marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., adding with emphasis, “when he was alive.” Tell us why that’s important.

MM: Let me offer some context here. In Michigan, we are currently grappling with a police shooting in Grand Rapids. Patrick Lyoya, a Black man, was shot in the back of the head by an officer during a traffic stop. A few years ago, in response to the protests following the murder of George Floyd, we’d introduced bipartisan legislation designed to improve Black Michiganders’ experience with police. Despite the ongoing injustices we still see, and the real pain in Grand Rapids right now, that legislation hasn’t moved. Some of our colleagues even look at this situation and say, “Well, Lyoya should’ve just complied with the police.” So I wanted to say something that would address that.

Over the past few years I’ve grown very close with Senator Adam Hollier, a colleague from Detroit. He’s shared stories with me about what it’s like to be a young Black man with kids. He has to take precautions whenever he drives or goes running. When he runs, for instance, he always wears neon colors. He’s also an active-duty military member, so he intentionally wears something that makes that clear. Adam knows that if he wears black, or a hoodie, he’s putting himself at risk.

People often quote Dr. King today, but it wasn’t popular to march beside him when he was alive. He was a controversial figure because he said what he said, and he did what he did. And he saw injustice and asked for white Americans to recognize it and to be active participants, not to stand on the sidelines. I really wanted to highlight that Fr. Ted could have easily just said, “It’s not my problem,” but he didn’t. He saw injustice and took the risk of being an ally, even when it was not a popular thing to do.

The fact that the management of my church didn’t offer the most welcoming experience to me, my mom, and my family doesn’t mean that faith is any less powerful.

DP: You spoke about the responsibility that power and privilege confer on those who possess it: a duty to offer service, protection, and allyship to the marginalized and powerless. A lot of people have been waiting for something like this. Why aren’t we getting it? And how can we begin to act?

MM: Even the word “privilege” has been politicized. There are certain people for whom I’m “White Privilege McMorrow,” or “Senator White Privilege,” and that’s used as a pejorative. And for me, especially the way that I was raised, it’s nothing to feel bad about. But it’s something to acknowledge. All of us have some privilege compared to others. We have something that others don’t have, regardless of our income or education level or how comfortable we are. There’s always something that we can offer someone else.

Service itself is a privilege. If we have the ability, mental capacity, and time to be of service, that is a privilege. It’s so easy to be comfortable and to say, “You know what, this isn’t my issue.” And for a lot of people who look like me, there’s also a fear of engaging in the wrong way, or saying the wrong thing. In an attempt to be sensitive, and out of a fear of saying the wrong thing, too often people aren’t saying anything at all. And that’s not doing anything to stop hate from growing in really dangerous ways.

DP: Although you continue to draw on your Catholic upbringing, you’ve been pretty frank about how the experience you had with the Church growing up was “not the best.” How do you go about reconciling some of these factors? How do you stay committed to ideals like faith and service when the Church you were raised in can sometimes make it so hard?

MM: It’s been a lifelong journey—not a struggle, that’s the wrong word—but a journey, to figure out those two things.

I think of it like any job: you can get hired into a position you think is your dream job, because it’s a company you admire and love. But imagine the management is bad when you get there. It might not be the experience you wanted, but that doesn’t necessarily change what that organization stands for. And that’s sort of the way that I understand the Church.

The fact that the management of my church didn’t offer the most welcoming experience to me, my mom, and my family doesn’t mean that faith is any less powerful. That’s something I take from my mom, who was pretty young when she had me, about twenty-five. She had to figure out her own relationship with the Church. She taught CCD for a while and was very active in choir with us. But she really found her comfort and strength in service, in the soup kitchen, in inviting people to our house.

I joke with people that I never had a key to my house growing up. People just walked in, sat down, and started eating food. It didn’t matter who they were, or where they were from. Sometimes they were strangers—which, looking back, might not have been a super safe thing to do. But that’s who my mom was. Our house was a community center for anybody who wanted a place to go or somebody to talk to. My mom was always of service to others, sometimes to her own detriment, but I think that’s what she really took out of life: You don’t have to be in church in the same pew every Sunday, but you can do things in your daily life every single week that are of service and express faith through works.

DP: Current polling shows that a majority of Americans favor codifying key LGBTQ rights. Do you see a role for religion and, in particular, Christianity, in helping to convert this popular support into legislative policy?

MM: Yes, I think so. I know that I am not an anomaly in terms of my own experience with faith. I think we just have to stand up and say that these things are not at odds with each other. I fundamentally believe that religious freedom in the United States means you have every right to practice and express your belief, as long as it does not hurt others. You don’t have the ability to inflict your personal beliefs on other people. So I don’t see any conflict between ensuring that our LGBTQ friends and neighbors are protected from discrimination and being a person of faith. I think that a lot more of us should get more comfortable saying so, because we know the support is there. We just have to get over our fear of speaking out imperfectly.

DP: How big a role did your understanding of faith and religion play in your decision to enter a life of public service?

MM: I don’t know that I actively thought about it. I graduated from Notre Dame, and had always wanted to be a car designer. I got to do that first, interning for Mazda before moving on to Mattel, where I was a designer for Hot Wheels. That was super fun, and now every four-year-old thinks I’m very cool.

I loved my job, but I also realized that I really missed the service aspect of my years at Notre Dame. A lot of the projects that we did in my industrial design program focused on service. We designed refugee shelters for disaster areas and thought about how to create pop-up schools. I loved that. So it wasn’t as linear as “my faith drove me to service,” but faith has definitely made me a better public servant. It impacts how I approach this job and how I found myself in this space, which wasn’t my original career plan.

DP: I want to talk about a phrase you used in your remarks on the floor that really resonated for a lot of people: “performative nonsense,” which you’ve used as a criticism. To what extent do you see “performative nonsense” taking the place of authentic political action and the responsibility of delivering concrete gains for constituents?

MM: It’s frustrating. Not only are the actions of the senator who said the really hateful things about me negative towards the LGBTQ community, they’re also really disingenuous to her own supporters. They’re a deflection, a way of scapegoating, of making people so angry and hateful that they somehow believe that the reason health-care costs are too high is because a trans fifth-grader wants to play soccer. And that is wrong.

It really comes back to authenticity. I remember one of my favorite classes in college was comparative religion. I loved learning about all the different religions and what we had in common. I vividly remember sitting in class with a student who had gone through Catholic school—I was in public school from kindergarten through twelfth grade—and who made the argument that a character in a book we were reading couldn’t be held responsible for his actions because he wasn’t a practicing Catholic, because he hadn’t received proper moral instruction. And I just thought that was such nonsense.

It doesn’t take sitting in the same pew every Sunday to look around the world and your community, and apply the lessons of faith through works: reach out to the sick and the poor, love those who have less. Calling yourself a Christian, or putting it in your Twitter bio, is not the same as being one. It’s performative, and it’s nonsense. It’s not showing faith through works.

DP: Fairly or not, Democratic politicians are perceived not to acknowledge how faith and religion figure into their lives and their work as legislators and leaders. Yet we do see from figures like President Biden and others that faith can guide their approach to policy and to action. Do Democrats have a “faith problem” they need to address? And if so, how do they do it without engaging in a different version of performative nonsense?

MM: I don’t want to claim that my story is everybody’s story. I do think that people are hungry for authenticity. I think everybody should share what their own beliefs are, even if it’s complicated. If you have a faith background, wonderful. Tell people about it. If you don’t, and you find service in other ways or value in the community, share what that is. The most important thing is that we find that connection with people first.

DP: How do you plan to proceed from here? What happens next?

MM: If anything, the response to my remarks has really renewed my faith in this job and why I’m doing it. Sometimes it can be frustrating to come to work—I’ve introduced forty bills since taking office almost four years ago, and none of them have even gotten a hearing. The past few years have been hard, and everybody’s tired. Many of us struggle to show up every day and get through it—even those of us who are, like me, comfortable suburban moms.

But my hope is that if I can help inspire more people like me, who are not members of marginalized groups, to realize that we have not only the duty, but the power to stand with our neighbors and help them when they are being targeted unfairly, we can do that.

Published in the June 2022 issue: 

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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