Mitt Romney, Mormonism and Race
Published on October 31, 2012 by guest author: Steve LeBlanc

In early 1978 Mitt Romney was 31 years old, a recent graduate of Harvard Law/Business School, and the counselor to the president of the Boston stake of the Mormon church. At the time, the Mormon church excluded black men and women from the priesthood, and also refused on theological grounds to teach black people the secret signs, tokens, and passwords the church believes are required to get into heaven.
The above paragraph will probably surprise many readers. This is due to the fact that Romney’s Mormonism has for the most part been a non-issue during the general election. Commentators have been reluctant to dig up aspects of Romney’s involvement with the Mormon church that might be viewed as detrimental. The Christian-Right, while not pleased with Romney’s non-traditional Christianity, has nevertheless supported his candidacy and kept themselves fairly mum on the issue of Mormonism. The majority of those remaining seem to agree that religion has no place in politics, and have not brought Romney’s spiritual life into the general discussion.

While I agree that religion has no place in politics, I do think it is vital for voters to learn all they can about the judgment and character of the candidates they are considering for the most powerful position in the world. I believe that the history of Romney’s involvement in the Mormon church, as well as public comments he has made (and refused to make) regarding certain aspects of the church’s past and present policies and dogma, do in fact reflect on his character and judgment.

To sufficiently explain my point, it is necessary to quickly review the history of how the Mormon church has handled the issue of race. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was actually fairly progressive with regard to race relations compared to the standards of his day. While he didn’t exactly consider blacks equal to whites, he did allow a few “exceptional” black men to become members and priests within his church. Unfortunately, strident racism took root in the church when Brigham Young assumed leadership in 1844. Young was clear in his views on race, stating that “you must not think, from what I say, that I am opposed to slavery. No! The negro is damned, and is to serve his master till God chooses to remove the curse of Ham …”

The Mormon church maintained the doctrine that black people were a cursed race through the remainder of the 19th century, and through the first three quarters of the 20th century. While the Book of Mormon doesn’t mention such a curse, the Pearl of Great Price does, claiming that blackness came upon Cain’s descendants, who were despised among all people. The Pearl of Great Price, along with the Holy Bible, The Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants are the four books that currently constitute the Mormon church’s scriptural canon. The Pearl of Great Price is a collection of disparate materials gathered together and published by Joseph Smith that deals with significant aspects of Mormon faith and doctrine.

The Mormon church’s policies reflected their belief that black people were cursed and inferior. For instance, the church refused to allow any black person to participate in the endowment ritual that was designed to prepare participants to become priests and priestesses and enter into heaven. This ritual (which is still practiced today) involves instructing participants in the four signs and tokens of the Mormon priesthood. According to Brigham Young, these signs and tokens are required in order to pass by the angels guarding the gates of heaven. Prior to 1990 (and during the time Romney would have undergone his endowment ritual), participants were also taught that each of the first three signs and tokens had a “penalty” associated with it, and would have mimed various ways of taking one’s life to represent the penalty that they would undergo were they to reveal a particular sign or token to someone who was not a Mormon priest. For instance, Romney would have mimed ripping open his chest to indicate that he knew that if he ever revealed that particular sign, he would die by having his chest ripped open.

The Mormon church was straightforward regarding its exclusion of blacks from the ceremony. In 1949, the church’s First Presidency (the head of the church), said that the ban on blacks from the priesthood and the endowment ritual was a “direct commandment from the Lord.”

The church changed its policy in 1978. Mormon missionaries were attempting to spread their faith across the world, and church leadership began to realize that expansion into South America and Africa might prove difficult given their current policies. Whatever may have prompted the change, on June 8th, 1978, Spencer W. Kimball, the First Presidency, issued a statement claiming that he had received a revelation from God that “the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows there from, including the blessings of the temple. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color”.

It may be that nothing I have written thus far regarding the history of racism in the Mormon church is particularly revealing. Many people know that the church has a racist past, and that the church changed its policy to allow blacks to become priests in 1978. There is however a very important (and intentional) subtlety in the message from Spencer W. Kimball (and in current Mormon theology) that is often missed. Kimball claimed in 1978 that the day had come when the ban (and curse) could be lifted. By saying this, however, he is inferring that the ban (and curse) had previously been correctly applied. In other words, he confirmed that it was correct that the ban and curse had been applied to black people as recently as 1977. And this, as far as anybody can tell, is still the official word of the Mormon church in the present day. The Mormon church never repudiated its history, or offered any indication that it believes it had acted wrongly in its racial discrimination. The final word it ever delivered on the matter was that the ban had rightly been in place, and that in 1978 God informed them via a revelation that they were now allowed to lift it.

So what does this all have to do with Mitt Romney? For me it leads to three questions:

1. Why did Romney, up to the age of 31, choose to be a member of a church that denied the priesthood to black people, and taught that colored people were cursed?

2. What does it tell us about Romney’s character and judgment that he currently attends a church whose theology states that colored people were rightfully cursed until 1978?

3. What does Romney himself have to say regarding questions 1 and 2?

Let’s consider the first question. While it is true that 1978 was a long time ago (34 years), it is also true that Romney at that time should have known better. A fifth-generation Mormon (his family was one of the first Mormon families), he was raised within the church — by 1978 he surely would have been well acquainted with the church’s teachings. By that time he had spent 30 months as a Mormon missionary in France, and had studied at Brigham Young University. He was the counselor to the president of the Boston stake of the Mormon church. Given that one of the responsibilities of the president of the Boston stake was to counter anti-Mormon sentiments, Romney would certainly have been well-versed in Mormon racist policies. Despite this he chose to continue to affiliate himself with the Mormon church.

It might be argued that Romney at the time was still a young man who didn’t know any better. I don’t buy that explanation — I am currently 36 years old, and would like to think that five years ago I would have known better than to support a racist organization. Besides, by all accounts Romney was a very mature 31 year old. He had graduated from Harvard Law/Business School, and by 1978 had become vice-president of the Bain & Company law firm. The owner of that company would later say of Romney that “he had the appearance and confidence of a guy who was maybe ten years older.”

Romney was politically aware as well, given the fact that his father George Romney had served as governor of the state of Michigan from 1963 through 1969, and had run for President in 1968. Ironically, the elder Romney had faced criticism over the priesthood ban during his Presidential campaign. Rather than denying the legitimacy of the ban, George Romney instead responded by pointing to his civil rights record as governor of Michigan.

In sum, Mitt Romney at the time knew of the racist policies of his church and the theological justifications that had been given for them. He was old enough, mature enough, and informed enough to make his own decisions regarding which organizations he wanted to affiliate himself with. And he chose to continue to affiliate himself with the Mormon church.

I have little to say regarding question number 2. I personally would find it problematic being involved with a church that has a racist past it refuses to repudiate. Apparently Mitt Romney does not find this problematic. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine what this says about Romney’s judgment and character.

Perhaps what is most telling is what Mitt Romney himself has said (and refused to say) about the history of Mormon racism and his involvement with the church. In a 2007 “Meet the Press” interview, Tim Russert noted the fact that at one point Romney had been a 31-year-old member of a church that denied the priesthood to blacks. He asked Romney, “Didn’t you think, 'What am I doing as part of an organization that is viewed by many as a racist organization?'" Romney responded by saying, “I’m very proud of my faith, and it’s the faith of my fathers … And I’m not going to distance myself from my faith in any way.”

Romney went on to say that he had been “anxious to see a change in my church,” and claimed to have wept upon hearing the news that the ban had been lifted. However, when pressed by Russert, Romney refused to admit that his church had been wrong to restrict blacks from the priesthood and the endowment ritual. He spoke very eloquently about his support of civil rights and his personal belief that God does not discriminate, yet he deftly (and very notably) stops short of saying that his church had ever been in error. In other words, Romney adhered to the official Mormon line. He was glad that the restriction had been lifted, but he couldn’t and wouldn’t say that the restriction had been wrong when it had been in place.  You can watch a video of this portion of the interview here.

I’d like to be clear that I am not trying to suggest that Mitt Romney is racist. However, I find the comments he made (and refused to make) during his interview with Tim Russert extremely troubling, particularly since the interview occurred so recently. Given this country’s horrible history of racism, it is shocking to me that Romney didn’t take that opportunity to state unequivocally that the historic racism of the Mormon church had been in error. And Romney, like the Mormon church, has not had anything else to say regarding the matter since. I believe these facts reflect very poorly on the character and judgment of Mitt Romney. While religion has no place in politics, it is imperative that we elect a president of good character and judgment. I therefore implore you to consider the question of Mitt Romney, Mormonism, and Race when deciding who to vote for in the upcoming election.

Steve LeBlanc lives in Lebanon, N.H., with his wife, son and two cats. His many interests include philosophy, theater, music and writing.

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User Comments
KJohnson | November 01, 2012 20:24

Great article.

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