Mormon Leaders Still Won't Come Clean on Race-Tainted Past
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In May 1998, talk radio shows, internet sites, and newspaper columns in Salt Lake City bristled with talk that the First Presidency and the Quorum of Twelve, the Mormon Church's governing body, would publicly disavow church belief and scripture that blacks were an inferior race. This was the logical next step after church leaders claimed in a revelation in 1978 that blacks could now be priests, serve on missions and be married in the Temple.
Mormon scholars, writers, and a bevy of black Mormons demanded that church leaders publicly apologize for its long-standing and grotesque reading of scripture. A newspaper report that church leaders had chosen the twentieth anniversary of the revelation to discuss the issue fueled even more chatter that a public disavowal was forthcoming.
Given the spectacular leap in the national and international power and influence of the Mormons, an apology and a vigorous campaign to educate Mormon followers on racial tolerance would give a big boost to the ongoing battle against racial discrimination. Mormon First President Gordon B. Hinckley quickly quashed that hope.
Hinckley said that the Quorum had not discussed the matter and there were no plans in the future to discuss it. In other words any talk of an apology was just that talk. The issue quickly fell off the Mormon's and the public radarscope. It has largely stayed out of public debate the past decade. But that abruptly changed with the rise of former Massachusetts's governor Mitt Romney as a legitimate GOP presidential candidate.
First Jay Leno on his late night talk show hammered him on whether diversity would be a fact in his administration if elected. Then the reverend Al Sharpton flatly called for God-fearing voters to defeat him. Mormon leaders, however, have taken no official position on Romney's campaign and Sharpton did a mea culpa to Mormon leaders for bringing God into the presidential fray. But Sharpton took after Romney, not because he's a Mormon, but because of the Mormon's racially marred past. It won't be the last time Romney will take heat on the campaign trail for that past.
The lingering criticism that the Mormon Church is bigoted hasn't budged Mormon leaders the least bit. And it likely won't. A public disavowal would mean that they'd have to exorcise ten passages that are still on the pages of their revered Book of Mormon that explicitly exult whiteness as the fount of purity and good and blackness as the paragon of evil and sin.
A sample of one of offending scriptural gems reads, "...wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing because of their iniquity..."
A public disavowal of passages such as this is not a meaningless academic exercise. Thousands of Mormons still doggedly cling to a literal interpretation of the Mormon book, and believe blacks are inferior. While Mormon officials denounce and even excommunicate them, they have broken off and formed active Mormon fundamentalist sects in several states.
They indoctrinate their children in private and home school sessions in that warped racial belief. Within mainstream Mormon circles there are still books in print that are popular and eagerly read by many traditional Mormons that propagate the old ideas about blacks. Mormon sociologist Arman Mauss in a talk to the Mormon History Association in D.C. a few years ago warned that professors at Brigham Young University reported that a considerable number of students still believed the curse of blackness theories in the sacred Mormon texts.
There were also reports that the old teachings still crop up in seminary classes. Many black Mormons accepted the revelation as sufficient atonement for the church's racially tainted past, and have not pushed for an apology. But many have. They are enraged by the church's failure to fully rebuke the racist passages in the scriptures and repeatedly scream for church leaders to do more than declare that the church is now a racial big tent and the past has no meaning.
They're right. As long as Mormon leaders duck and dodge the past, it puts a terrible double burden on the church. Black coverts must constantly fend off criticisms and rebukes from friends and family members for joining a "racist church." It's also a disaster in public relations for Mormons. It deepens public suspicion that the church is insular, cultish, and gender and racial polarizing.
That suspicion has impacted the presidential race. Polls show that a huge percent of American voters will not vote for Romney solely because he's a Mormon. In 2008 Romney will be in the thick of the presidential derby, but 2008 is also the thirtieth anniversary of the Mormon revelation that race no longer matters in church belief and practices.
Mormon leaders can prove that it doesn't by doing what they should have done a decade ago and publicly disavowing the racist passages that are still on their books, and many are convinced that are still implanted in the beliefs of many Mormons.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of the book, The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and the GOP's court of black voters.