Mormon Church on the spot as Romney gains momentum
As Mitt Romney gets closer and closer to the Republican presidential nomination, many are starting to ask how his candidacy will play out with African-Americans, particularly as it relates to matters of faith.
Until 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), of which Romney is a member and former bishop, or lay pastor, banned men of African descent from its priesthood, and barred black men and women from sacred temple ceremonies that promised access in the afterlife to the highest heaven.
The LDS church has neither formally apologized for the priesthood ban, nor publicly repudiated many of the theories used to justify it for more than 125 years.
“I think the question you're asking is one that many are currently addressing,” said Rosemary Avance, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. “Romney's run for office has brought a lot of the Church's history out in the open for public scrutiny, and the race issue is no exception. I think you'll find that members of the Church are themselves just beginning to address some of these historical issues.”
This history is a long one, stretching back to the inception of the church of the 1830s. Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of Mormonism, ran for president in 1844 as a moderate abolitionist; ordained a Black man, Elijah Abel; and offered to adopt one young black convert, Jane Manning James, as his spiritual daughter.
Yet earlier in his life, Smith wrote anti-abolitionist screeds replete with racist sentiment typical of Christian pro-slavery apologists of antebellum America. In one 1836 letter to missionaries in the South, Smith excoriated northern abolitionists as the instigators of discord among southern slaves who, he argued, were generally happy.
Other figures early in the Church’s history illustrated such prejudices as well. The Mormon prophet Brigham Young stated in 1852, “Any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] … in him cannot hold the priesthood.” Up until the mid-twentieth-century, some prophets perpetuated the idea that Blacks were spiritually inferior, the permanently cursed descendants of Ham and Cain (a myth once popular in many American churches).
In 1931, Church President Joseph Fielding Smith, the great-nephew of Joseph Smith Jr., wrote a widely distributed treatise — still available on Kindle — asserting that Blacks were “fence-sitters” during a pre-mortal battle between God and Lucifer. When they were sent to Earth, according to Fielding Smith, Blacks were marked with darkened skin as a permanent reminder of their perfidy.
According to Christiandefense.org, LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote: “Those who were less valiant in pre-existence and who thereby had certain spiritual restrictions imposed on them during mortality are known to us as the negroes. Such spirits are sent to earth through the lineage of Cain, the mark put upon him for his rebellion against God, and his murder of Abel being a black skin. . . . Noah's son married Egyptus, a descendant of Cain, thus preserving the negro lineage through the flood. ... the negro are not equal with other races where the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned. ... " (Mormon Doctrine, 527-28; 1966 orig. ed., changed in the current ed.; emphasis added).
Black Mormons say the church's silence not only irks many African-Americans, it could also become a loud distraction for the nation's most prominent Mormon: Romney.
"Right now is a great opportunity for the church to say, 'Let's clear the air once and for all,'" said Darron Smith, co-editor of the book "Black and Mormon" and a sociologist at Wichita State University in Kansas to Religion News Service.
"But they won't do it. And that's going to put reasonable doubt in people's minds about Romney and the church."
The LDS church is mounting a multimillion-dollar campaign to highlight its growing diversity. In billboards, online ads and TV commercials, Latinos, Asians and African-Americans alike assert, "I'm a Mormon."
But the church remains overwhelmingly white. A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that Blacks comprise just 1 percent of the nearly 6 million Mormons in the U.S.
LDS church spokesman Michael Purdy said Mormonism is growing in Africa and in racially diverse communities in the U.S. and Latin America.
God rejects "none who come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female," Purdy said in a statement, quoting The Book of Mormon. "Just as God loves all of his children, wants what is best for them, and considers them as equals, so does the church," he added.
But many Blacks perceive the LDS church as racist. Recently an African-American pastor in Florida who supports Rick Santorum’s campaign raised the racial charge.
"Blacks are not going to vote for anyone of the Mormon faith," the Rev. O'Neal Dozier told The Palm Beach Post on Jan. 22. "The Book of Mormon says the Negro skin is cursed."
In actuality, the Book of Mormon says no such thing. But another Mormon scripture, The Pearl of Great Price, does say, "blackness came upon" Cain's descendants, who were "despised among all people."
Among Cain's heirs was Noah's son, Ham, who was "cursed … as pertaining to the priesthood," according to the scripture. Mormons trace their priesthood to Adam and Noah.
Questions about Mormonism's racial history also arose during Romney's first White House run.
In a 2007 Meet the Press interview, Tim Russert noted that Romney was 31 when the priesthood ban was lifted in 1978. "Didn't you think, 'What am I doing part of an organization that is viewed by many as a racist organization?'" Russert asked.
"I'm very proud of my faith, and it's the faith of my fathers," Romney answered. "And I'm not going to distance myself from my faith in any way."
But Romney also said that he had been "anxious to see a change in my church" and recalled weeping when he heard that the ban had been lifted.
"Even at this day it's emotional, and so it's very deep and fundamental in my life and my most core beliefs that all people are children of God," Romney said.
Pressed by Russert, Romney refused to say his church was wrong to restrict Blacks from full participation.
Romney's forebears were among the original Mormon converts in the 1830s, and Romney himself was a bishop in the church before he entered politics in 1994.
Romney's father, George Romney, also faced criticism over the priesthood ban when he ran for president in 1968. He answered by extolling his civil rights record as governor of Michigan.
George Romney, like his son, refused to publicly criticize his church.
"The issue hurt him, and it hurt the image of Mormon church," Newell Bringhurst, a historian and co-author of “The Mormon Quest for the Presidency”, told USA Today.
It may mar Mitt Romney's campaign too, Bringhurst said. "He'll face more and more scrutiny on the Mormon-Black issue, even though the church has abandoned the policy."
According to Purdy, leaders started looking for divine guidance about the Black ban in the 1970s. In 1978, he said, "a revelation to the church's prophet extended the blessings of the priesthood to all worthy members."
"It was a day of great rejoicing in the church," Purdy said.
But the 1978 statement did not address the theological background behind the ban.
In 1949, the LDS church's First Presidency — the top tier of its hierarchy — had said the priesthood ban was a "direct commandment from the Lord." And LDS leaders regarded as prophets taught that black skin was punishment for souls that lacked valor in a pre-earthly existence.
"Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications," Purdy said. "These previous personal statements do not represent church doctrine."
But even prophets' personal statements are taken as holy writ, and theories about Blacks being cursed or spiritually lacking circulated among Mormons well after the ban was lifted.
Even under intense pressure from Black Mormons, the church has refused to formally repudiate past interpretations of doctrine or scripture that tie spiritual worthiness to race.
"If the LDS church were to apologize, that would be casting aspersions on God's prophets — the voice of God on earth," said Richard Ostling, co-author of the book “Mormon America.”
"I don't think the Mormon soul could countenance it."
The New Republic and Religion News Service contributed to this report.
Zack Burgess is the Enterprise Writer for The Tribune. He is a freelance writer and editor who covers culture, politics and sports. He can be contacted at zackburgess.com.