How To Interview Mitt Romney About Racism

Summary

Ask: Was the Mormon Church wrong to deny priesthood to black members before 1978?

The official policy of the LDS Church is that the racist practice was commanded by God, and not a result of racism among its leadership.

The Church has never apologized for the practice nor specifically repudiated racist teachings by LDS prophets.

Mitt Romney is skilled at evading this point, aided by general misunderstanding of the LDS Church.

He should be able to unequivocally denounce the racism of his church and of his past. He hasn’t.


During his 2008 campaign, Mitt Romney appeared on Meet The Press with Tim Russert. This specific question arose, and Russert came close to getting it right. Watch the clip:

At the end of that section, Russert asked:

“But it was wrong for your faith to [deny priesthood to blacks]?”

Romney responded:

“I’ve told you exactly where I stand. My view is there’s no discrimination in the eyes of God and I could not have been more pleased than to see the change that occurred.”

What’s critical here is to note what Romney did not say; Russert asked “was it wrong?” Romney evaded. No apology. No repudiation of the Church or its racist practice.

Earlier in the interview, Romney states:

“I’m very proud of my faith, and of the faith of my fathers. And I certainly believe it is a faith, uh, well it’s True and I love my faith. And I’m not going to distance myself in any way from my faith.”

He will not separate his position and the position of the Church. The church has not apologized for the racist practice, nor will he.

Romney then extols his family credentials on the question of racism (some of which has been refuted) with a recounting of his own emotion at hearing of the change:

“I can remember when I heard about the change being made…I heard it on the radio, and I pulled over and literally wept. Um, even at this day it’s emotional.”

Mormons have learned how to talk about this issue to avoid deeper analysis. The language Romney uses is of a form that is common in the Church. For comparison, note the following, taken from an interview of Church Apostle Jeffrey Holland for the 2007 PBS Documentary “The Mormons” when asked the same question:

“I can remember exactly where I was…I started to cry, and I was absolutely uncontrollable. I felt my way to a chair … and I sort of slumped from the doorway into the chair and held my head, my face in my hands and sobbed.”

It’s important to note I am not questioning the emotional experience. As a young LDS boy, I remember feeling similar emotions. The ban was politically unpopular, and created discomfort for the Church and its membership.

Feeling emotion for the change is not the same as apologizing for and refuting the racist teachings.

Mitt Romney understands this, which is why when asked “was it wrong” by Tim Russert, he equivocated. If he answers “yes” he’s at odds with his Church. If he says “no” then he’s excusing racism.

Understanding The Equivocation

If you ask Mormons “Is the LDS Church sexist?” most will flatly deny it. The Church denies priesthood and leadership positions to women, as it once did to black men.

To most outsiders, that’s sexism. To the LDS Church? God’s plan. They’ll say women will receive all the blessings of heaven regardless of the exclusion.

In LDS context, womens’ rights flow through their husband’s authority. From The Proclamation on the Family, a foundational text in the LDS Church:

By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.

Prior to removal of the ban, the LDS Church taught the same of its black members; though they were denied full rights of membership, under god’s plan, they’d still receive blessings in heaven.

“We Aren’t Racist, God Is”

The seeming discrimination by the Church toward the Negro is not something which originated with man; but goes back into the beginning with God

Here’s the plain statement of the First Presidency of the LDS Church, delivered on December 15, 1969 in answer to increasing pressure on the issue of civil rights:

Our living prophet, President David O. McKay, has said, “The seeming discrimination by the Church toward the Negro is not something which originated with man; but goes back into the beginning with God….

“Revelation assures us that this plan antedates man’s mortal existence, extending back to man’s pre-existent state.”

President McKay has also said, “Sometime in God’s eternal plan, the Negro will be given the right to hold the priesthood.”

Until God reveals His will in this matter, to him whom we sustain as a prophet, we are bound by that same will. Priesthood, when it is conferred on any man comes as a blessing from God, not of men.

Were we the leaders of an enterprise created by ourselves and operated only according to our own earthly wisdom, it would be a simple thing to act according to popular will. But we believe that this work is directed by God and that the conferring of the priesthood must await His revelation. To do otherwise would be to deny the very premise on which the Church is established.

That Was 1969; How about Now?

Does the position outlined in the 1969 letter still hold? In 2003, I wrote to LDS Church Public Affairs; they affirmed the position:  “God set the boundaries of the inhabitants of the earth and as a part of that determined who could hold the priesthood.” (See letters below)

Does It Matter?

Mitt Romney’s inability to clearly repudiated the racist teachings of his church and to apologize for his role in that discrimination suggest he’s more concerned with the image of his religion than with the equality of all humans. I note the irony of the title of his Book, “No Apology.”

A Note: Mormon Apologetics

There are hundreds of web sites devoted to spinning this issue. This was not written to refute apologetics, but to outline the issue for those not equipped to understand the nuances of the arguments.

A primary equivocation is to change the question: instead of asking “Is God the source of the ban” apologists ask “Why did god institute the ban?” To that question, they’ll quote numerous official statements which point out that the reason for the ban is unknown. This is misdirection.

References

My August 2003 Letter to LDS Church Public Affairs

The August 2003 Response from Donald Jesse, LDS Church Public Affairs

My August 2003 Follow-up Letter to Donald Jesse, LDS Church Public Affairs

The August 2003 Follow-up Response from Donald Jesse, LDS Church Public Affairs

 

-- Download How To Interview Mitt Romney About Racism as PDF --

  • http://www.icarusae.com IcarusArts

    As I understand it, many scholars agree that the ban on African American Mormons receiving the priesthood was a hold-over of a common religious sentiment in America at the time the ban began. This is not a product of Mormon doctrine, but something that guys like Brigham Young and John Taylor brought with them from their previous religious experiences. Joseph Smith (founder of the Mormon church) never taught this in any form. In fact, we know that Joseph Smith gave the priesthood to at least one African American man, that man was called to a high leadership position in the church (The Quorum of the Seventy), and that man retained all priesthood rights including emeritus status in that position until the time of his death (well after Joseph’s death and the beginning of the black preisthood ban by Brigham Young). Another point is that this ban was not preached within the church even after the ban was in place. David O. MacKay, who would later become President of the church, lived a large portion of his life and was even an Apostle for 15 years before first hearing about the ban. When on a trip to Hawaii he found that the priesthood was being withheld from some members who were thought to have African blood, he immediately contacted Salt Lake to get permission to rectify the situation. He was told that this was policy, not doctrine, but that the matter would not be settled at that time. That was in the 1920s. Some 30 years later when he was actually the President of the church, he made a trip to South Africa and found out that ordinations were being withheld from white South Africans until geniology could be traced back to Euope. McKay told them to assume the genealogical links were there unless proof was found otherwise and began seriously considering the ban on his return trip to America. Being a white male in his 80s and 90s at the time, he was no doubt in step with his contemporaries, but he had his own social leanings that we may regard as racist today. If not racist he was, at least, clearly not progressive on the subject of civil rights, but it was clear he was making an honest effort to pray about a reversal on the ban–especially with the strong encouragement of his two (progressive Democrat) counselors, including Hugh B. Brown who was a strong advocate for Black Civil Rights and priesthood for all worthy members. Although McKay thought of this issue as policy rather than doctrine (and casually told many people in his private life that it would change someday), he remained extremely cautious about reversing it until he got a spiritual confirmation that it should change. This unfortunately never came in his lifetime. I hope that decision was not because of his own bigotry, but he was a product of his time struggling to change–just like the rest of the nation. Of course, the church eventually allowed Black Mormons to hold the priesthood, but it took much too long, in large part because of Harold B. Lee who is responsible for much of what we know as the modern church. I agree with you that the church should apologize officially, but I guarantee you that Romney (of who I am NOT a supporter), would also be thrilled if the church apologized so that he could move on with his political career. Nobody wants this.

  • http://mormon.org Tracy Hall Jr

    Nowhere in Latter-day Saint scripture, including the Bible, do I find a suggestion that an apology is required before we forgive someone.

    Rather, we read,

    “Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin.

    “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.”
    Doctrine and Covenants 64:9-10 http://bit.ly/nSBg14

    You know that Mitt Romney wept for joy when the Revelation on the Priesthood was announced. Your failure to forgive him – and his Church – hurts nobody but yourself.

    Tracy Hall Jr
    hthalljr’gmail’com

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothyk Timothy

    Hi IcarusArts & Tracy Hall, thanks for the comments.

    Really, it’s a simple question to Mitt Romney: Was the Mormon Church wrong to deny priesthood to black members before 1978?

    Mitt Romney is seeking to be the President of this Country. The most central tenet of our political philosophy is egalitarianism, that all are equal.

    By equivocating on this question, Mitt Romney makes it clear that his priorities are Church before Country. He’d rather protect the image of the Church than clearly condemn racism.

    The answer to the question should come easily: yes, the Church was wrong. Period.

    There is, however, a deeper issue at play here. Let’s change the basic question:

    Is the Mormon Church wrong to deny priesthood to women?

    Icarus, you said:

    This is not a product of Mormon doctrine, but something that guys like Brigham Young and John Taylor brought with them from their previous religious experiences.

    I disagree. The examples we’re discussing, racism & sexism, are both grievous errors by the LDS Church, but really, they’re only symptoms of the real illness: authoritarianism.

    Joseph Smith organized a community governed by authoritarian structure; an oligarchy of like-minded men who are granted life-long & absolute authority over the community.

    This core doctrine of Mormonism will lead invariably, predictably, to the outcomes we see: racism, sexism and bigotry.

    And that’s the core of this issue at play here.

    Shall we elect as President a man who on the simple question of racism betrays a clear commitment to egalitarianism in order to safeguard an authoritarian church?

  • Lincoln Cannon

    Hi Timothy. At the pinnacle of his ministry, Joseph Smith preached a plurality of gods and advocated trust that we will unite with them. He did that at a time when the Christians of his day almost universally taught of an exclusive God. Joseph also ran for President of the US, included in his platform a plan for freeing the slaves, and ordained blacks to the priesthood. He did that at a time when many Christians owned slaves. Joseph had many faults, but the ideology he advocated is not so simply authoritarian as you claim. To the contrary, it’s easy to make the case that his most authoritarian ideas were among his least innovative relative to his Christian context, whereas his least authoritarian ideas were the most innovative. That doesn’t justify the various expressions of racism, sexism and excessive authoritarianism in Mormon history and culture, but it should give you pause to reconsider the indiscriminate nature of your charges.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothyk Timothy

    Lincoln…Joseph Smith was a charismatic, intelligent man who inspired those around him, both to admiration and to vilification. And, you’re likely right that relative to other Christian ministers of his time and location he offered a different view of God; better? I’m not convinced, nor do I think it much matters.

    However, Joseph Smith ruled his community through despotism. He wielded his power to manipulate men and to sexually abuse women. He was a philosopher that relied on appeal to authority rather than persuasion through reason.

    You’re right that he did ordain at least one black man, and that his run for President included a platform of abolition. But he was simultaneously organizing what was known as The Council of Fifty, and thereby intended to declare himself King over a new country.

    Joseph was a lot of things, but an advocate for open, democratic pluralism cannot be counted among them. Did he have some persuasive qualities? Of course; a benevolent King loves whom he loves, and they tend to love him back. But the measure of a benevolent King shouldn’t end with those he loves, it should account for the entirety of his philosophy and the results of his rule.

    But, most important to this discussion, the manner in which he organized his religion is classically authoritarian. The system of communal governance he set into motion will result in authoritarian rule every time, and that net result is on display in modern day mormonism, which however progressive you may consider early mormonism, is now among the most regressive and oppressive religions in the world.

  • http://lincoln.metacannon.net Lincoln Cannon

    Timothy, your critique of Mormonism is shallow and will remain so until you choose to give up straw man arguments. The most persuasive critiques are those that begin with a representation of the critiqued that even its advocates would agree with. You’ve consistently failed to do that, and I believe the driving cause of this is a persistent anger you feel at a deeper than volitional level — one that I empathize with, for what it’s worth. No matter how we may feel at times, however, we can do better.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothyk Timothy

    Thanks for the feedback, Lincoln. I’m confident that my criticism of mormonism is well founded and that I’ve adequately considered it from multiple angles. As I mentioned above, I’m not interested in chasing down apologetics.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothyk Timothy

    Just a follow up note:

    The Mormon Apologetics Organization FAIR has launched a new web site called the Mormon Defense League.

    The stated purpose of the site is to correct misperceptions about Mormonism. They have an article dealing with racism specifically, and they heavily quote LDS Sociologist Armand Mauss. Mr. Mauss makes the claim that God had nothing to do with the LDS racism.

    If you’ve read my article, and specifically, if you’ve read the letters that I exchanged with the LDS Church, that statement is patently false, from the perspective of the LDS Church. Mr. Mauss wrote his statements prior to my discussion with the Church on this topic, and I have shared my research with him. He has not corrected his misinformation.

    The Mormon Defense League is purely apologetic in nature, and will go so far as to mislead on fundamental questions.

  • LIsa Rice

    Tim, I am really truly surprised with your attitude towards the church. I guess my question is simply, why is it so critically important for the church to apologize? They made they change…can’t we just be done with it? There have been some many people in my life, you for one, that aren’t perfect. If I waited for an apology from everyone I’d be dead. I do understand that racism is a horrible, horrible thing that is far in the past, as you know, for the church. I don’t believe Mitt has an racism issues…so why do you?

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothyk Timothy

    Lisa…was the church wrong to deny priesthood to blacks?

  • Timothy

    This is a powerful distillation of the “Doctrine” behind the priesthood ban, and a thorough fleecing of the same by a devout member in the 1940′s. Very good stuff: http://thoughtsonthingsandstuff.com/dr-lowry-nelson-on-racism/