Mormon candidates must confront religion's racist past

OPINION - Given the long and suspect history of Mormons on race, Romney and Huntsman are kidding themselves if they think that their church's history won't be an issue...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has made no public comment on The Book of Mormon musical that’s been knocking them dead on Broadway. Romney, of course, would be mum on it for two good reasons.

First off the plat taunts, teases, hectors, lampoons and ridicules the Mormons on their holy book, history, practices and doctrinal statements. But most importantly, the play skewers Mormons for the church’s decades of racial prejudice and for their prodigious proselytizing activities in Africa. But the satire could just as easily apply to the long history of Mormons’ long standing purported curse of Ham teachings about blacks. It’s a play no devout, respectable Mormon would have anything good to say about.

The other reason that Romney would be mum on anything that tosses an ugly glare on his Mormon faith is that there’s no way at this stage of the election game to say whether his Mormonism will help or hurt him, or mean nothing to voters. Polls have been mixed.

In a 2006, Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll more than one third of voters said they wouldn’t back a Mormon for president. A June Quinnipiac Poll, which is the most recent poll on voter attitudes toward a Mormon in the White House, found that voter attitudes had softened somewhat. One third of voters didn’t flatly say they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon, just that they were “somewhat” or “entirely uncomfortable” with a Mormon as president.

But faith, religious and personal beliefs, and prejudices aside, Romney, and newly declared Republican candidate Jon Huntsman, despite the intense efforts of the church’s ruling elders to make its racial past go away, are still saddled with the heavy burden of the religion’s racial history.

For more than a century the Mormons rigidly enforced their policy that blacks could not be priests, serve on missions or be married in their temples. Some Mormon scholars tried mightily to debunk the curse of Ham teaching about blacks by citing various passages in the Book of Mormon that appeared to condemn color discrimination. But that did nothing to charge the iron clad prohibition against blacks having anything that resembled equal status in the church. The Mormons finally backed away from their ban after church leaders claimed they got a revelation from God in 1978 that declared blacks were now equals.

But the revelation came years after the heyday of the civil rights movement, and when discrimination and racial bigotry had become a legal, political and social taboo in America. The Mormon leaders counter attacked against the claims that despite the revelation on race, they were still closet bigots. They touted their much-publicized genealogical research on African-American families, their aggressive missions in Africa, and the increased number of blacks that serve in the important church body known as the Quorum of the Seventy to prove it.

But Mormon leaders would not relent on one thing. They rebuffed all calls for them to publicly apologize for the church’s long, stubborn, and dogmatic defense of alleged biblical encoded racism.
This did not set well with many blacks who could not easily forgive let alone forget the decades of Mormon Church sanctioned exclusion. A number of black Mormons continually called on the church to come clean on its past, and send the real message that Mormonism was truly an open, inclusive, non-insular, non-sectarian, even too some, scary religion. Their efforts for a public mea culpa were in vain.

It’s not the Mormon faith’s racial past or the recanting of that past, though, that makes Romney and Huntsman non starters with most African-Americans. It’s their politics. They are right wing conservatives. That stems not just from their party allegiance, but their religious allegiance as well. Mormons are rock solid political and social conservatives. Polls not surprisingly show that the overwhelming majority of Mormons vote Republican. Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming with their heavy concentration of Mormons and Mormon voters have not backed a Democratic presidential candidate in decades.

Romney and Huntsman will parade their conservative credentials on issues such as education, military spending, slashing government programs, and limiting civil rights on the campaign trail. They will bend over backward to curry favor with Tea Party leaders and activists, even if that means subtle pandering to their pet themes about big government, alleged runaway social programs, and the need to curtail or eliminate affirmative action programs.

Romney and Huntsman’s record on diversity as respectively Massachusetts and Utah governors will be sharply scrutinized to see what they did or didn’t do in making their administration’s inclusive when it came to the number of blacks, Latinos and women they appointed to key posts in their administrations and in state agencies. And blacks will take a hard look at just how effectively they enforced civil rights laws in their states during their gubernatorial tenures.

Romney and Huntsman have repeatedly said that religion shouldn’t be an issue in determining who is fit to sit in the White House. But given the long and suspect history of Mormons on race, the two candidates are kidding themselves if they think that their church’s history won’t be an issue. Put simply, Mormonism has for most of that history been no laughing matter for blacks.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on podcast on and internet TV broadcast on Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: