(RNS) Marvin Perkins says God led him to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — but friends advised otherwise.
“Mormons, they're prejudiced against blacks,” Perkins recalls being told.
Until 1978, the LDS church banned men of African descent from its priesthood, a position open to nearly all Mormon males and the gateway to sacramental and leadership roles. The church had also barred black men and women from temple ceremonies that promised access in the afterlife to the highest heaven.
As he explored joining the church in 1988, Perkins said he asked Mormons near his Los Angeles home about the racial doctrines. They gently explained that blacks were the cursed descendants of Cain, the biblical murderer, he recalls.
“Let's say you have this powerful witness of God telling you that this church is truly of him,” said the 48-year-old salesman and video producer. “And then the people in that church lovingly tell you that you are cursed. How do you reconcile those two things?”
Perkins says Mormon leaders couldn't offer an answer.
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.
Perkins and other 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: Mitt Romney, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.
“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.
“But they won't do it. And that's going to put reasonable doubt in people's minds about Romney and the church.”
“The curse of Cain”
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.” [see a clip here]
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, said Perkins and Smith. Neither were surprised to hear an African-American pastor in Florida who supports Rick Santorum's campaign raise the racial charge recently.
“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.”
The Book of Mormon says no such thing. But another Mormon scripture, The Pearl of Great Price, says, “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.
“The faith of my fathers”
Questions about Mormonism's racial history also arose during Romney's first White House run.
In a 2007 “Meet the Press” interview [watch it here], 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.
“For men like Romney, lifelong church members whose people were pioneers in the faith, to criticize church authority would be akin to heresy,” said Smith.
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,” said Newell Bringhurst, a historian and co-author of “The Mormon Quest for the Presidency.”
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.”
Smith was more blunt.
“The church has never done its due diligence, and guess what? Mitt Romney is taking hell for it.”
“We just got that one wrong”
Purdy said LDS leaders began seeking 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 some 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.”
Perkins agreed that admitting prophets had erred would be “faith shattering” for many Mormons.
After converting to Mormonism, he began counseling fellow black Mormons and producing videos on race in church scripture. Perkins believes he's doing his part to help the church overcome its racist reputation.
But his work alone cannot overcome blacks' deep-seated and widespread suspicions about Mormonism, Perkins said.
“The church is going to have to make it happen by confessing that its racial teachings were wrong,” he said, “that we're a church of continuing revelation and we just got that one wrong.”