For black Mormons, presidential race brings new attention

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It’s a bright Sunday morning inside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints near downtown Baltimore, and Brittany Stevens is standing in the pulpit, testifying about the goodness of her “Heavenly Father.”

Stevens, an African-American woman in her early 20’s, is telling this diverse congregation how faith and prayer helped her cope during an East Coast storm that claimed lives, destroyed property and left millions without electricity. Her family lost power in their home, but was otherwise fine.

“I’m so thankful,” she said.

Stevens grew up Baptist, but was recently baptized as a Latter-day Saint. She joined a church with some six million followers in the U.S., and where black members comprise about 3 percent of its body, according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

With the presidential election close at hand, Mormons, and particularly African-American Latter-day Saints, have been increasingly thrust into the spotlight.

The expected contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney has raised inevitable questions about the intersection of faith, race and politics.

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Obama, of course, broke barriers and made history by becoming America’s first black president. Romney, a fourth-generation Mormon,  is the first Latter-day Saint in history to garner the presidential nomination of a major political party.

Church officials stress that none of this matters when it comes to its official stance on the campaign.

“We are politically neutral,” explains Lyman Kirkland, a Latter-day Saints spokesman based at its headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. “Candidates are not allowed to campaign in church.”

Still, the topic of politics isn’t taboo among Mormons when they’re not worshiping.

“I voted for President Obama in the last election and I’m about 95 percent certain I will again,” says Jerri Harwell, a Utah college professor and member of The Genesis Group, a church-sanctioned fellowship group founded by black Mormons in 1971. “I haven’t completely closed my mind to Mitt Romney, but I do have many questions about what type of leader he would be.”

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Harwell, a longtime Mormon and onetime church missionary, says she’s baffled by Romney’s rejection of president Obama’s health care legislation, when in her words, it was “modeled on his own health care plan in Massachusetts.” She’s also concerned by recent media reports that Romney has Swiss bank accounts and other off-shore assets.

To her, both issues raise larger questions.

Martin Luther King said we should be judged not by skin color, but the content of our character,” says Harwell. “For someone who wants to run the country, I’m not seeing strong character traits in Romney.”

Those views stand in stark contrast to her husband of 25 years, however. Don Harwell is a black Mormon and an ardent Romney supporter.

“I got to meet him and liked what he had to say,” says Harwell, a Mormon convert since 1983, and the current president of Genesis. “I did phone campaigns for him in the last election.”

Mr. Harwell, who noted he isn’t a Republican but has conservative political leanings, says he is  “disappointed” with economic and social policies espoused by Obama and the Democratic Party.

“I was raised in a time when people were responsible and accountable for self,” says Harwell, a 66-year-old retiree who previously worked in sales. “People had respect for themselves, and they didn’t expect welfare or anything for free.”

Still, Harwell says he’s respectful of whatever political opinions that his wife and other Latter-day Saints may have.

“The church can have a lot of influence, but we make up our own minds. No one can pitch us a presidency,” he said.

Nationwide, thousands of Mormon congregations (called wards) have African-American members in large cities such as New York, Chicago, D.C. and beyond.