Mormon church's racial history continues to haunt Romney

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Mitt Romney, despite a seemingly lackluster appeal to the Republican base, is steadily marching toward the GOP nomination. A relatively private man, Romney has suffered for appearing awkward in public. But the businessman turned politician is learning to be transparent: he has finally released his tax returns, made attempts to clarify a myriad number of changed policy positions, and has even held his own in debates — fine tuning well-rehearsed attacks on President Obama ahead of their likely general election fight.

Yet there is one subject Romney has consistently avoided — for good reason — and that is the sordid history of racial insensitivity in the Mormon Church

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The issue garnered attention this week after the Washington Post published an article, “The Genesis of a Church’s Stand on Race”. In the article, Randy Bott, a well-regarded religious professor at Brigham Young University, which is owned by the Church of Latter-day Saints, sought to justify the church’s previous exclusion of blacks to the priesthood, as well as the disturbing teachings — and explicitly racist texts of the Book of Mormon.

“God has always been discriminatory,” Bott said.

The professor compared prejudiced policies to a young child asking for keys to a father’s car and conflated this with the Mormon ban on blacks.

“What is discrimination?” Bott asked. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?” Professor Bott tried to explain that though blacks were not allowed into the priesthood before 1978, this meant that they were spared from being sent to the lower rung of hell.

It’s a stretch – and a wholly insufficient answer for most reasonable minds – but Bott’s comments actually reflected mainstream Mormon opinion for at least 150 years.

Founded in 1830, the Latter Day Saint (LDS) movement was started by Joseph Smith, who claimed to have received a revelation from which he penned the Book of Mormon. LDS theology claimed that people of the black African Diaspora were cursed. Today, Mormons still teach that a war in heaven took place when Jesus and Lucifer, both considered sons of God, disagreed on whether or not humans should be given free will.

According to Smith, Jesus believed that only a select few could be saved, while Lucifer believed that everyone should be given a chance at salvation. Smith’s revelation purports that the spirits who sided with Lucifer ended up being born as darker-skinned people, cursed by God, and were undeserving of the priesthood.

Though Smith may have been unduly influenced by the slave-owning society in which he lived — more than any actual spiritual awakening — the official doctrine of the LDS Church still views his writings as divinely inspired. And despite the ban being lifted in 1978 — more than a decade following the 1964 Civil Rights Act — the Church has never disavowed the scripture or Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s teachings, which are fraught with racial bias.

Further complicating the matter are the dubious circumstances under which Mormon leaders eventually saw the light. In early 1978, the U.S. Department of Justice threatened to revoke the LDS tax-exempt status if it continued to discriminate on the basis of race. It was then that the Mormon “living prophet” declared his new revelation — thereby protecting millions, if not billions, in potential tax liabilities.

In response to Ricard Bott’s claims, the Church of Latter-day Saints issued an official statement yesterday condemning racism, “including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the church.”

This represented the most forceful statement the Church has made on the subject to date, but if the story gains more traction — or if Bott defends his stance — this will undoubtedly prove to be a mitigating factor for Mitt Romney, forcing him to speak about the racial politics of his faith.

Romney has claimed that he was so moved when the church finally allowed blacks into the priesthood that he broke into tears. Yet he was a full grown man in his 30s and there is no evidence whatsoever that he previously objected to or campaigned against the blatantly racist policies.

Faith — unlike the socio-political sphere — is a matter of the soul and core beliefs. Mitt Romney spent 32 years in a religious organization which indoctrinated the idea that blacks were fundamentally cursed — by God no doubt — and that by virtue of their birth were unworthy of the highest spiritual affirmation. Professor Bott did not simply express his individual opinion — he articulated the LDS platform from its inception, until just 34 years ago.

Romney was confronted on this issue in a December 2007 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press. The late Tim Russert brought up the ban on blacks and the fact that Romney was an adult before the ban was lifted. Russert pointedly asked if Romney had a problem with associating himself with an organization that was seen as racist. Romney answered, “I’m not going to distance myself in any way from my faith.”

Russert asked if Romney was willing to disavow the Church’s earlier teachings, and Romney refused — choosing instead to cite examples of how his father supported civil rights. Mitt even claimed that his father, George Romney, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. — a statement that was later proven false and that Romney recanted.

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There is “no religious test” for holding political office, but there is a moral one. As a leader in his church, a young Romney would have been compelled to teach the racist Mormon ideology to others. His curious answer to Russert affirms the belief that the church was infallible in its teachings. Romney cannot be excused of his own affiliation with an explicitly discriminatory organization — without, at the very least, providing an acceptable answer.

Barack Obama was forced to disavow controversial statements by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, during the 2008 campaign — culminating in his now famous race speech. Romney cannot be given a pass — especially when, unlike Obama’s situation — Romney remains in a church whose codified beliefs are sketched in proverbial stone. The priesthood ban may be gone, but the cursed text remains and is still taught as divinely inspired doctrine.

The former governor rarely discusses religion. But the recent controversy over the contraception clause of the new healthcare law and the Catholic Church’s public disagreement with the Obama administration — precipitated comments from Romney that Obama was attacking freedom of religion. Romney spoke while campaigning ahead of the Michigan and Arizona primaries that he “knows a lot about being persecuted” for one’s faith.

There is a cognitive dissonance inherent in the idea that one can be a victim of religious persecution, while simultaneously adhering to a faith which does the same based on race.

It’s a complicated subject, with an equally complicated history, and though Romney may not now, or ever have held racist feelings or beliefs on a personal level, it is a public office that he seeks. And, as such, he must be compelled to offer an open and honest explanation.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is an author, columnist, political and economic analyst, and a former investment banker. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.