Thursday, September 27, 2012

Does Mitt Romney believe black people were cursed? Or are they cursing him?

An NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll in late August, 2012, showed Mitt Romney was trailing President Obama with black voters, an incredible 94 percent to zero percent. Yes, zero. Unless there was a minus-zero a candidate could not do worse with any group of American voters than Mitt Romney polled with African-Americans.

Even allowing for statistical anomalies and the inevitable four-and-one-half percent up or down variations of polls, it’s a pretty sorry number. I haven’t seen a similar poll conducted after the political conventions, but since the Republican convention didn’t give Mitt any real bounce in any other polls we can probably safely surmise Mitt is still doing poorly with that segment of the population.

A few days ago I told you of Mitt in France as a Mormon missionary in 1968. Until 1978 black men were excluded from holding the priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I wonder if at least some of that Church’s former stance on people of African heritage — a prejudice not extended to any other ethnic group — could have something to do with Romney’s poor showing amongst them.

Years ago I found a small chapbook, Mormonism and the Negro, which was published in 1960, and is an attempt by a faithful member to explain the Church’s position on its official discrimination policy. The author wrote it for fellow Church members. At that time, just before the decade when the Civil Rights Era really got into full swing, it probably wasn’t necessary to preach its theology of discrimination to anyone outside the LDS Church.

After all, at the time several states had Jim Crow laws, and those that didn’t have laws specifically discriminating against black people had unwritten policies that added up to the same thing. A church discriminating probably wasn’t all that big a deal. Most churches in America had black and white separation. The difference was that other churches didn’t write the discrimination specifically into their theology, and base it on prophets and prophecies of our modern era.

Mormonism and the Negro author John J. Stewart was at that time the editor of publications and a professor of journalism at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. He used quotes from Mormon writings and The Book of Mormon to back the policy. His argument would mean nothing to a non-Mormon who didn’t accept Mormon holy writ, or know their belief that black people were cursed by “sitting on the fence” during a so-called War in Heaven during a pre-existence, when all humans were in a spirit form before having their turn on earth. According to their stories the spirits that didn’t take sides ended up being born into bodies with black skins. So, those born as Negroes were “cursed.”

If presented with that story nowadays I doubt that African-Americans, who have had to fight for every right that white Americans have had as their birthright* since Year Zero of the history of the United States, would take kindly to such an attitude from a church which was, even in 1960, attempting to build itself into a world religion.

By 1978 with the winds of change blowing, official discrimination against African-Americans was impeding the Church’s message. In a move that surprised everyone, especially Mormons, the First Presidency of the LDS Church, led by President Spencer W. Kimball, changed its position. African-Americans, who had always been allowed to hold membership in the Church, could now also hold the priesthood. (Not surprisingly the revelation didn’t apply to women, who have never held any priesthood positions in the LDS Church. It hasn’t sat well with some women who are not content to be second class citizens in their own religion, but it’s a topic for another day, separate from this.)

Evangelical Christians have their own theological problems with the Mormons, apart from the now-defunct racial policy, but it would not surprise me a bit that it wouldn’t be mentioned or discussed amongst African-Americans that Mitt belonged to a religion that discriminated. They might not know the fine points of that discrimination, but they would know that while African-Americans were fighting for even the most basic civil rights, LDS Church members and missionaries — including Mitt, had he been asked about it, or challenged — were teaching an official policy of discrimination.

This is an opinion from author Stewart on page 49 of Mormonism and the Negro, who twisted that discrimination into being some sort of advantage for black people:
Is it not possible to see an act of mercy on the part of God in not having the Negro bear the Priesthood in this world, in view of his living under the curse of a black skin and other Negroid features? [Emphasis mine.] When a man has the Priesthood conferred upon him, Satan redoubles his effort to destroy that man. Just think of the weapons, the tools that Satan would have at his command . . . Who is to say that, in view of these factors, the Negro is not — so far as his temporal well-being — better off not to have the Priesthood? God has said that where much is given much is required . . . imagine the obstacles that the Negro would encounter in attempting to honor and magnify his Priesthood. [Emphasis mine].
I’m sure most thinking Mormons of today would repudiate such a statement as condescending at best and racist at worst, but Mormons of Mitt’s generation and before grew up with that official racism. Some LDS people, when the 1978 “revelation” was published, believed it was political, that the Church was changing God’s law to change its secular public relations nightmare. That attitude prevailed for years, including amongst those Mormon Republicans who steadfastly refused to honor the national Martin Luther King Day holiday. In Utah for many years it was called “Human Rights Day,” and although MLK Day was a national holiday, it was not observed in Utah as a local holiday. The legislature opened their sessions on that day every year, as a sort of raised middle-finger to the whole idea of honoring Martin Luther King.

Nowadays the holiday has gotten its rightful name back in Utah, but the generation of Mormons who grew up defending the Church’s right to discriminate against blacks by claiming them under a curse are still around, and still have political power. That includes Mitt, although he’d be smart not to mention it. He has enough problems.

*The word, “entitlement,” sneered at by Mitt Romney, is in this case the one he has enjoyed the most as a prosperous, white American male.

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