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Romney and the Racism Charge

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One element that came out in the aftermath of “Romney’s religion speech,” an event highly touted in the run-up and in days following, was the charge that Mormonism is essentially a racist faith (or at least was until 1978), and that in unabashedly embracing the “faith of his fathers” so publicly (and uncritically), Mitt Romney did not distance himself from or express enough of a critical attitude toward the official LDS policy regarding membership by blacks before 1978.

One example of a person who raised this concern quite vociferously is political analyst Lawrence O’Donnell, who as a guest on the McLaughlin Group on the episode immediately following Romney’s speech, said this of Romney (among many other things):

Here’s the problem. He dare not discuss his religion. And he fools people like Pat Buchanan, who should know better. This was the worst speech, the worst political speech, of my lifetime, because this man stood there and said to you, “This is the faith of my fathers.” And you and none of these commentators who liked this speech realize that the faith of his father is a racist faith. As of 1978, it was an officially racist faith. And for political convenience, in 1978 it switched and it said, “Okay, black people can be in this church.”

Mitt Romney was 31 years-old in 1978 when the LDS church altered its policy toward “priesthood” membership for black males, citing a new revelation. You can check out the entire exchange between O’Donnell and the other members of the McLaughlin Group panel here:

It seems to me that Pat Buchanan misses O’Donnell’s point in the exchange. Buchanan cites scandalous examples from Christianity’s past, such as the condoning of slavery for 1,500 years, in effect to say that all religions have their problems, and that doesn’t mean that we associate every historical evil from a religion’s past with its contemporary adherents. But what O’Donnell’s charge is meant to show is that folks like Pat Buchanan and other Christians are inclined to judge their tradition’s own past, and pronounce that such and such a practice was an objective evil and upon reflection ex post facto, incompatible with the fundamental beliefs of their faith.

From O’Donnell’s perspective it’s precisely this criticism that is lacking in Romney. As Byron York puts it,

But now, Romney is faced with the simple question: Was the church policy before 1978 wrong? This morning, he wouldn’t say, and it might be difficult for him, as a former church leader, to get out in front of the LDS leadership on that. And he certainly can’t cite McConkie’s advice to forget everything that was said before 1978. Given all that, it’s an issue that’s likely to pop up over and over again.

It did pop up on Romney’s Meet the Press interview with Tim Russert the following Sunday morning:

Part of Romney’s defense is his claim that his family’s practices point to their beliefs about race in America: “My dad marched with MLK.” Now there’s controversy surrounding that claim.
As one reporter puts it, “It turns out that Romney and King never marched together. They never marched in the same city. And they never marched on the same day.” The Romney campaign’s explanation is that Romney’s father participated in a march that was part of a larger series of marches and events planned by Martin Luther King. So saying “My dad marched with MLK,” is analogous to saying something like, “My dad stood with Churchill.” The point would be not that your father literally stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Churchill, but that he metaphorically “stood” with him against the Nazis.

That’s the campaign’s line: “On Wednesday, Romney’s campaign said his recollections of watching his father, an ardent civil rights supporter, march with King were meant to be figurative.” So not only did Romney say that his dad marched with MLK, but that he “saw” his dad march with MLK, but one claim or both were in some sense were meant figuratively. (Update: More here on the “marching with MLK” question. Romney says “saw” is a “figure of speech.” HT: The Corner. Speaking of the National Review folks, given the magazine’s endorsement of Romney, this has to be troubling.)

Previously I’ve written on the question of Romney’s Mormonism that “Evangelicals would do well I think to keep Luther’s concept of vocation in view, judging all political candidates not firstly on their religious creed but on the soundness of their view of the role of civil government.” But where religious beliefs do have direct political, social, or cultural implications, they do become fair game. Everyone seems to agree on this. They disagree whether this aspect of Mormon history meets that criterion.

Warren Cole Smith writes, “certain qualifications make a candidate unfit to serve. There was a time when racism or anti-Semitism would not disqualify a candidate for service. Today, it does, and rightly so.” I would like to see evangelicals who support Romney show how and why his church’s formerly official racist policy doesn’t have social, cultural, and/or political implications. Others have criticized Romney supporters like Wayne Grudem and Hugh Hewitt, the latter noted as failing “to thoroughly consider many of the specific points of pressure Romney could face as he runs the presidential gauntlet, such as racism from past Mormon leaders” in his book on Romney.

But even in demanding this explanation (either from Romney or from evangelicals who support him), Hewitt’s larger point, which he makes in a follow-up interview with Lawrence O’Donnell, still stands. People from other religions ought to be prepared to answer similar questions about the policies and practices of their own traditions.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Tracy Hall Jr

    There is abundant evidence that George Romney was a strong proponent of civil rights and an ally of Martin Luther King, and that George was Mitt’s hero.

    I believe Mitt Romney when he says that he wept for joy when the Revelation on the Priesthood was announced on June 8, 1978, because I, and millions of other Latter-day Saints, rejoiced with him in that moment.

    Those who would fault either George or Mitt Romney for not using political means to oppose the Church’s pre-1978 policy do not understand the LDS religion or culture. We support our leaders by our faith and our prayers. We don’t petition them for change — we petition our God for change.

    It was not political activity within or without the Church that changed the policy, but the prayers of millions of faithful Latter-day Saints like George and Mitt Romney. God does hear and answer the prayers of all his children.

    [quote]. . . he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.[/quote]([url=]Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 26:33[/url])

    You can read the testimonies of Black Latter-day Saints at [url][/url].


  • Jon

    When will Huckabee be required to answer for the racist founding of his church and the continued segregation in the Evangelical churches?

    The debate on allowing blacks to hold leadership positions in the LDS Church didn’t start in 1978, and there was a strong movement within the LDS Church for the policy to change for decades. Anyone who does research on the topic can easily see that policies were being rolled back as early as the 1940s (or perhaps earlier) and the 1978 revelation was the final word in a series of changes in policy.

  • As I alluded to above, I think this question is at the heart of O’Donnell’s critique. Hugh Hewitt’s point is that if evangelicals ask this sort of question about Mormonism, then they had better be prepared to answer them about their own tradition. And O’Donnell’s point would be something like Huckabee would be willing to criticize “his” church’s or tradition’s segregationist past, whereas Romney, for whatever reason, won’t say that the Mormon church’s policy before 1978 was wrong.

  • Bryan Monson

    Blacks receiving the priesthood at a later date than other lineages had nothing to do with racism. It had only to do with doctrine. Has anyone ever read the Bible? Never before in the history of the Bible, or the history of God’s dealings with his children has that lineage ever had the priesthood. In fact at one point only the Levite lineage exclusively held the priesthood – eventually it was revealed that all Jews could have right to the priesthood. Additional lineages received it. in the Lord’s due time). I could make a very strong case that church leaders from the inception of the church were not racist. There are ample writings supporting such. The ENTIRE thrust as to the persecution of Mormons being driven out of Missouri centered on the abolitionist position of the church. Joseph and Emma Smith adopted a black run-away slave as a daughter. Neighboring Southern Baptist slave owners felt threatened by rising numbers of abolitionist Mormons, and drove them out of the state. I am in this church, and can tell you – there is nothng but love and acceptance for ALL people of ALL races and backgrounds. Sociological studies have confirmed what we already knew anecdotally: that Mormons are FAR less racist than average Americans. The church currently is experiencing its fastest rate of growth in Africa. The truth is that the church membership was not racist, is not racist, and prior to the blacks receiving the priesthood, the church at large prayed continually for this last noble and elect race to at last receive the right to the priesthood. Their prayers at last were heard and this right was revealed in 1978 through the prophet Spencer W. Kimball.

  • We have an old ‘History of Utah’ series of books published in the late 1800’s that details some of Joseph Smith’s platform when he considered running for President of the U.S.

    It describes his disgust for slavery and segregation, and his prescription for remeding the situation without causing a hardship on the south. Also his abiding allegiance to his country.

  • Aaron Shafovaloff

    I’d invite everyone to watch a video of mine called “Mitt Romney and Mormonism”:

  • Jason

    Mormons not racist

    This slams Romney and his religion. Mormons do not have any current teaching that blacks are inferior in any way. Yes, there were past general authorities who wrote their own commentary, but never anything officially sanctioned by the Mormon Church. In 1852, Brigham Young did officially restrict blacks from the Priesthood.

    Needed is the clarification that most white Churches until the 1970’s still did not allow blacks as leaders and many as members.

    To answer why the Church took maybe 10 or so years longer than some others, after the civil rights movement, look no further than the decision making structure of the Church. It is one-of-a-kind among mainline religions (yes, it’s the 4th largest religious body in the U.S.) because it requires a unanimous decision among both the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve to make an official change. That’s fifteen strong leaders among whom there cannot be a single dissenting vote. If only a majority were needed, like in other Churches, blacks no doubt would have been allowed the priesthood much earlier.

    The Church is not racist and does not teach officially or unofficially that blacks are inferior in any way. I can prove it. Every single Church doctrine, teaching manual, scriptures and everything official in the Church is online at There is nothing else. Any member of the Church would appeal to the materials on this website as the official and final word of everything taught, believed, and lived by its members. If it is not on that website, then active temple going members collectively and individually do not believe it is true. Mormons believe the whole thing is true and to not pick and choose doctrines.

    Here is the official doctrine on the curse of Cain

    The truth is that Joseph Smith was forcing would-be members to free their slaves before they were baptized. He also personally baptized and ordained blacks to the priesthood which was unheard of for his time. Later, Brigham Young, in 1852 decided to forbid blacks from the priesthood officially (totally common practice among all religions of the day) which lasted until 1978. However, blacks were always allowed to be members (not common practice for its day) and Brigham and Joseph both taught that we are equal in the eyes of God.

    What’s really ironic is that the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) of which Huckabee was a minister was created expressly for the purpose of continuing slavery and separating from the other Baptists for that purpose (see wikipedia). It’s now the 2nd largest religious body in the U.S. The SBC only officially apologized for being racist in 1995. Mormons on the contrary were not apologizing for being proslavery or anything else. There were already loved black Mormons in 1978, but now they could become the leadership of the Church.

    For a little more irony, the Mormon Church is thriving in Africa. Other American religions are there also, except among them, Mormons are some of the only people expressly forbidden to practice Polygamy. Many other mainline U.S. religions there allow it because it is such a dominant part of African culture, but not Mormons.

    As for portraying Romney as being anti-polygamy, but not anti-racist, he said he couldn’t wait for it to change and was so glad when it did. His father established the first Civil Rights organization in Michigan State government and marched with MLK. What more do you want?

  • SAM

    My concern with Mitt Romney is not racism, but the fact that he believes that Jesus and Lucifer are brothers, that all Churches were apostate until Joseph Smith came along, that God is not Spirit but flesh and will alight some day in Missouri…and there is an elitism in Romney’s church..if a follower of Rev. Moon were running for President, wouldn’t we question his beliefs, the things he stands for? The other thing that concerns me is that Romney seems to be ‘buying’ people..his ‘volunteers’ are allegedly paid and paid well…I watched the Mormon tabernacle choir the other nights and did not see any African American faces…there could have been some, I suppose…but the vast majority were white…why is that I wonder? There’s something about Romney that ‘seems’ too perfect…as if he is wearing a mask. I’d rather have Obama, who stumbles every so often…there’s something hidden behind the mask of Mitt Romney…beware what you ask for. Sam

  • Steve Farrell

    It’s interesting to read an accusation of racism in an article which bears the marks of deep religious prejudice, in its one-sided presentation, it’s lack of respect in calling the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint by the name it designates itself by (and asks the media to use as well), and it’s lack of fairness in giving the LDS position on the matter – which included as so noted above, the loss of life and property both in Missouri and Illinois for being anti-slavery and for taking free black converts into the Church.

    As a convert myself in 1977, I never saw a prejudice against that race in its members, and in fact, saw quite the opposite on the Utah college campuses I attended, where members seemed to bend over backwards to make black students, not of our faith, feel loved, appreciated, and a vital part of our community.

    Christians in general can look back to the policy of preaching the gospel only to the “lost sheep of Israel” until Peter received his revelation that the time for the next phase of God’s plan for mankind came to pass, and remember that Christ certainly was not a racist – but understood better the providential unraveling of God’s plan.

    A concept no different than Old and New Testament prophets predicting the time when the “first will be last, and the last first,” or in other words, that in the latter days, the gospel would first go to gentiles first and the Jews last (whereas the order was reversed previously).

    The bottom line in LDS theology includes the doctrinal conviction that all mankind, regardless of race, will in the Lord’s due time, on this side of the veil or the other, be offered the fullness of the gospel and the fullness of gospel blessings, including the priesthood.

    Meanwhile, each man, and each nation, has his own test in mortality, but God will judge all men according to their works and the desires of their hearts, whether in or out of the faith, and for that matter, in or out of the priesthood.

    God is far more wise then to give every man the same blessings in this life, as if spiritual socialism is part of his plan. He has tailored each man a test according to His foreknowledge of things, and let’s each man, according to his knowledge, talents, and opportunities, prove his own metal, in his own set of circumstances.

    Thus, under this line of thinking, a poor beggar, in a non-Christian country, who perhaps drank from every good book he could get his hands on, and did his best to be kind to those around him according to his opportunities, might be more mercifully judged and rewarded at that Great Last day then the most educated and prosperous baptized Christian who was, nevertheless, hardhearted, a skinflint, and perhaps more narrow in his search for truth.

    Just a thought. Hatred for blacks, nor pressure from the civil rights movement, had anything to do with the priesthood ban against the children of Ham, nor its removal. It was in our belief, a providential event. The time had come. And also, as Spencer W. Kimball revealed, “having long observed the faithfulness of these our brethren,” – that is, despite this test to their faith, those black members who had joined the church (prior to 1978), had proven their worthiness before the Lord – living up to their individual Abrahamic test, and thus came the blessing, or the lifting of a command from God (as also happened to Abraham – first being ordered to slay his son, and then being informed, “it is enough.”

  • Abinadi

    I never knew a Mormon who said they prayed that blacks could be given the priesthood prior to the time it was given to them. Neither myself nor my friends ever made such a prayer. That would have been doubting God and presuming upon the authority of God. At the time, the withholding of the priesthood was presented in our church classes as Doctrine, not as “opinion.”

    The one black Mormon I met before he was allowed the Mormon priesthood said that his prayers and those of his white friends were that he would “accept” the situation, not that God would change His eternal decrees.

    “Those who would take [Mormon] prophets out of politics would take God out of government.” – Ezra Taft Benson, Mormon Prophet.

  • Abinadi

    “Mormons do not have any current teaching that blacks are inferior in any way.”

    If blacks and whites are positively discouraged from inter-marrying, then the Church is effectively saying that blacks are inferior marriage companions when a white person is seeking a spouse.

    “I can prove it.” Ah, good, another provable religion.

    “Every single Church doctrine, teaching manual, scriptures and everything official in the Church is online at There is nothing else.” Not even close. (And most of what is there, is merely “commentary”, right?)

    “it requires a unanimous decision among both the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve to make an official change. That’s fifteen strong leaders among whom there cannot be a single dissenting vote. If only a majority were needed, like in other Churches, blacks no doubt would have been allowed the priesthood much earlier.” Thanks for the clarification. We all thought the Church was led by revelation. Now we see it’s by unanimous consent after ten years of bickering.

    “Yes, there were past general authorities who wrote their own commentary, but never anything officially sanctioned by the Mormon Church.” If there is a difference in the authority of a general authority’s “opinion” and “official” doctrine, then most of what the Mormon prophet says can be ignored as his personal opinion, as “commentary”. Is that what you are saying? That Mormons can ignore all but “official”, “sanctioned” declarations? Do you need to be reminded what happens to those who take that approach to the words of the Lord’s Anointed?

  • Boodwall

    Maybe the Mormon leaders had a good reason for what they did.

    So, then, why did “our brethren” require this special test to their faith?

    Abraham was told to sacrifice his son because of the failure of his previous sacrifice. What failure had “those black members” committed that required a greater sacrifice from them?

  • Steve Farrell

    To Boodwall: I can’t answer a question that has to do with the foreknowledge of God and the spirits He sends to each nation, period of time, race, particular situation whether family, economic, healthy or not, free or not, educated or not, except to say that I do believe He knows what He is doing in this respect. We read in Acts 17:26 that He “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.”

    I take that as a principle of my faith that I believe in. But as I also noted this has to with a prior prohibition as to the priesthood that was imposed upon the seed of he seed of Cain and Ham and Canaan and Egyptus and Pharaoh (Abr. 1:20-27; Moses 5:16-41; 7:8, 22).

    Now mind you, these are works of scripture the LDS declare divine (as companion witnesses of Christ in our day), and by quoting them I am not asking any one here to believe them, but rather I site them to help the uninformed better understand that this issue has a doctrinal history to it – not some deep set prejudice, that Mr. Romney, for example is being implicated for for not condemning his supposed anti-black past of his church.

    From the 1st Chapter of the Book of Abraham:

    20 Behold, Potiphar’s Hill was in the land of Ur, of Chaldea. And the Lord broke down the altar of Elkenah, and of the gods of the land, and utterly destroyed them, and smote the priest that he died; and there was great mourning in Chaldea, and also in the court of Pharaoh; which Pharaoh signifies king by royal blood.
    21 Now this king of Egypt was a descendant from the loins of Ham, and was a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites by birth.
    22 From this descent sprang all the Egyptians, and thus the blood of the Canaanites was preserved in the land.
    23 The land of Egypt being first discovered by a woman, who was the daughter of Ham, and the daughter of Egyptus, which in the Chaldean signifies Egypt, which signifies that which is forbidden;
    24 When this woman discovered the land it was under water, who afterward settled her sons in it; and thus, from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land.
    25 Now the first government of Egypt was established by Pharaoh, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham, and it was after the manner of the government of Ham, which was patriarchal.
    26 Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood.
    27 Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham, therefore my father was led away by their idolatry;

    Now there’s more to all this in LDS doctrine, and this having to do with Cain, not only the Biblical account of his murdering his brother, but of his act, and later acts being inspired not only by the devil, but an oath-bound society the devil had put into this mind to get gain and power, and which Cain, and others such as Lamech spread among the sons of Adam. This, I would suppose, brought more thought to the table as to why the ban, a matter of safety for the Church of God back then(my opinion).

    Now, while I believe the scriptural account to be authentic (and my church’s decision to for a season continue the ban until God directed otherwise … which he finally did in 1978), I’m not trying to persuade this belief in others, but only to say that there is a background here in scripture that the LDS hold sacred, that points to both providential foreknowledge of God as to his order of spreading his gospel (something every Christian of all denominations must confront as the general Biblical and Christian history) that made the Lord’s church a very exclusive group in the beginning, moving outward to a very universal church in the end of time … and this by God’s design (which we ALL must except as a principle of faith … that we don’t fully understand).

    That God would hold such a priesthood ban over so extended a period is again, not the point, the point is that the Latter-day Saints believed it as a point of doctrine, up and until the new revelation, that is no different in their minds of Peter’s command to no longer limit the preaching of the gospel to the house of Israel. To describe our motives as racist is to impose their view on us, rather than to let us speak for ourselves.

    As to whether or not Latter-day Saints denied blacks the gospel, or insisted on them being in their own congregations, there is no history of this, and as noted, blacks were baptized (and prior to an evaluation of the above modern revelation) actually ordained to the priesthood, which brought much persecution upon the church.

    Likewise, the American Indian was preached to and ordained to the priesthood, being taught that they were the literal blood of Israel through Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manessah … possessed of a great destiny, and addressed in the Book of Mormon as the chief object in the books effort to bring souls to Christ.

    This also angered and filled with suspicion the people of Missouri and Illinois, in a time when in these frontier towns there was much hatred and fear of those native Americans.

    The Hispanic of Central and South America are also believed to be chiefly of the House of Israel (as to blood) with a great destiny, and now have come to outnumber the Whites in the church (so far as I know), have never been banned as to the priesthood, even though many of them are as black as night, and even though some of them are extremely uneducated by American standards.

    In the LDS culture, they are honored, and believed, as a group, to when converted to the faith, to often exhibit spiritual gifts greater than us gentile blood types.

    The Church prospers also among the people of color in Japan and Free China. No ban has ever existed among those folks, as per the priesthood.

    Bottom line, the priesthood position on blacks was one that specifically had to do with lineage, and indeed in cases of mixed blood was causing great difficulty in areas where large numbers of converts were coming into the church (such as Brazil), and a set of miracles going forward in Africa (as pertaining to the spread of the gospel) without the church formally being involved there … and thus the item became a matter of serious and sustained prayer for President Kimball, and perhaps others before him … until the world of the Lord was received … in this last time when the gospel must go to all the earth.

    This is in very small part the LDS perspective on the matter … a wee bit fairer than blanket accusations of charges of racism on the one hand, and of just seeking to finally be politically correct on the other.

    I know for some this summary in my last two comments sheds a little light on the matter, and will satisfy them; but to others, I’m sure, nothing will. They’ll just find some other worn out anti-Mormon story to “bring to light” as if for the first time … in order to destroy a good man … via guilt by association and an array of other violations of the rules of debate, honesty, and fairness.

    I don’t know, rather than point the finger at a church that has always extended the gospel to black, white, yellow, and red, and calling them racists – shouldn’t we focus on addressing the issue of why it is that whole nations refuse to open their doors to Christianity and religious freedom for their peoples, and why many of our politicians, educators, and media are working hand in hand to keep it that way, not just over there, but in our schools among our children?

    This, among other areas of common moral interest, is where we need to focus our energy and work together; not squabble over doctrinal differences, sometimes, quite unfairly at that.