Beliefs Ethics

Will the Mormon Church’s racial history be a problem for Mitt Romney?

RNS photo courtesy LDS Church.

(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.

Malcolm Dickson, left, listens to testimonies during a Sunday service at the 
Washington, D.C., Third Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Malcolm Dickson, left, listens to testimonies during a Sunday service at the
Washington, D.C., Third Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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.”

Bishop Al Jackson was elected the leader of the Kensington, Md.,
congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2005. Jackson is seated in his office in front of a picture of Jesus Christ. ``We're not trying to focus too much on just our differences or our skin colors but what we all have in common and that's the gospel,'' he said.

Bishop Al Jackson was elected the leader of the Kensington, Md.,
congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2005. Jackson is seated in his office in front of a picture of Jesus Christ. “We’re not trying to focus too much on just our differences or our skin colors but what we all have in common and that’s the gospel,” he said.

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.”

 

About the author

Daniel Burke

Daniel Burke worked for Religion News Service from 2006-2013. He now co-edits CNN's Belief Blog.

8 Comments

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  • Ask the question on the other side of that coin that arises from the nonsensical and dangerous violation of mingling politics and religion. Will the Crusades, the Inquisition, the sale of indulgences, phony relics, masses, or other prayers be any problem for the new member of the Christian Right, Newt Gingrich, who has been making a shameless display of having found Jesus just in time for this presidential run? Will the murderous civil wars that were part of the Reformation be raised? Religion and secular politics have equally hideous histories. Wiser and better not to mix them.

  • An “apology” would be superfluous, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been dedicating its resources to recruiting people in Brazil, Haiti, and Africa. There are close to 400,000 African Mormons now. If the Mormons didn’t “like” blacks, why would they send thousands of missionaries to baptize more of them into the Church over the last 30 years? There are lots of the “white” Mormons in Utah and other parts of the US, both young men and women and retired couples like my neighbors here in Richland, Washington, who devoted a year or two to living in Africa and (when necessary) learning a new language so they could bring more Africans into the Church. Is that something that “racists” would do? When did the Ku Klux Klan ever send missonaries to Nigeria and Ghana?

    And this is consistent with Mormon missionary efforts in 150 countries, in 96 languages, that have achieved a milestone where 8 million of the 14 million Mormons are outside the US, and more Mormons speak languages other than English. A million Mormons in Mexico (say that three times fast)! A million in Brazil. A million in Asia, from Mongolia to the Philippines. A third of Tonga is Mormon. A tenth of the residents of Ulaan Bataar have joined the Church since communism loosened its tyranny there. Mormons in Russia and Eastern Europe, too.

    Between the missionary system and the BYU campuses in Utah, Idaho and Hawaii, Mormons are building an international network of personal relationships across all racial, language and national boundaries. Racism is not an element of a church where your grandson is called to proselyte in Bolivia and you go to Haiti as a Church service missionary to help people build homes.

  • By the way, one of the most popular authors of Mormon books discussing the authors’ view of “Mormon Doctrine” was Bruce R. McConkie, who was one of the apostles who supported the 1978 change. When asked about his earlier writings, he told Church members that he was wrong, that his understanding had been limited, and that none of what he wrote on the topic was correct in light of the new revelation, which he received in a spiritual confirmation with the other apostles. Inasmuch as what he had written was quoting earlier Church leaders, he was saying it about their statements as well. And I think he was happy to learn he had been wrong.

    The people who spouted the old interpretation to Mr. Perkins were clearly NOT the mission president who supervised the misisonaries or another Church leader, who would have known better than to recite stuff that had been renounced by McConkie.

    I knew McConkie when I was a young missionary in Japan and he oversaw missionary work in the Far East. He thoroughly enjoyed spending time with the Japanese Mormons, and posing for pictures with them with his arm outstretched and a local branch president standing up straight under his arm (McConkie was a big guy). He had a real sense of humor as well as gravitas. In 1985, as he was dying of cancer, he spoke in the general conference broadcast worldwide about his testimony of the reality of Christ and his atonement which he wrought to save and exalt all mankind.

  • It’s probably true there are some racists in the Mormon Church. I imagine this is no different than their being racists as part of any religious congregation anywhere in the world. I would imagine racist attitudes in an America that grew up with slavery were not that uncommon, and understandably influenced the thinking of some early Mormon leaders.

    However, as a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I can tell you in all honesty that racism in not part of Mormon doctrine, has never been preached at any meeting I’ve ever been to. Rather, Mormons preach with sincere vigor that God loves all of his children, no matter what race or color. I haven’t seen a study done, but I’m rather certain, that of all Christian denominations in the US, Mormons have a higher rate of mixed race marriages than any other group.< .b> If that doesn’t say something about Mormon’s racial attitudes, I don’t know what does.

  • It amazes me how the history of The South and the terrible relations with blacks is ignored by Christians in The South. Where were they when blacks were tortured, shot and hanged. A white man was never found guilty of a crime against blacks until Lyndon Johnson sent troops in the 1960’s.
    All we hear is about how bad Mormon’s teated blacks. We repented and changed our policies.

  • Making an accusation that someone is “racist” has all sorts of associations that usually characterize the American South. People shols be clear that those preconceptions do NOT apply to Mormons.

    The original Mormons were principally from New England, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. They were not part of the slave-holding southern culture, and that was one reason that slavery supporters in Missouri eventually ordered them to leave the state or be exterminated–literally. The next large influx of Mormons came from Canada and from England and Wales, not exactly hotbeds of slavery. Slavery was not a feature of the economy in Utah territory.

    Utah did not have racially segregated schools, nor were Mormon churches ever racially segregated. There have been a small number of blacks in the Mormon Church ever since it began, and there were several black families in the congregation where I grew up in Salt Lake. As a young adult, I helped baptize a black man in 1974, who said that the Mormons were more welcoming to him than people in all the other churches he had visited. The church explicitly supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other legislation protecting people in employment, housing, and other life activities. Even before 1978, BYU had an elected student body president who was black.

    When the announcement came of the end of the restriction on priesthood ordination, every Mormon I knew had the same reaction as Mitt Romney: Incredible joy and relief. I heard about one person who was disciplined by the Church for complaining about it, meaning released from all church teaching and leadership positions. The policy caught up with the views and desires of the church membership. And of course the Mormons who were happiest were the black Mormons who had stuck with the Church, having faith that it would be worked out. That also included thousands of people in Ghana and Nigeria who had informally organized themselves into “churches of anticipation” because they had been converted to Mormonism by reading the Book of Mormon, and prayed that their united efforts to live its teachings would allow them to have Mormon missionaries come and baptize them. A whole generation of African Mormons has now grown up. Calling these Mormons “racist” is to dishonor their accomplishments.

  • Problem in what way? Can’t see how it would be an election problem when 95% of blacks aren’t going to vote for him anyway.

  • Missionary work is done to control people, weaken them and gain control their resources… they have not done Africans or African American’s a favor.

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