Black Mormons and the Politics of Identity


Being black, liberal and Mormon, Marguerite Dreissen represents a small but emerging point of view that is in stark contrast to the traditional profile of American Latter-day Saints, who tend to be conservative, Republican and white.




 By SUSAN SAULNY

 

Published: May 22, 2012

 

SALT LAKE CITY — When Marguerite Driessen, a professor here, entered Brigham Young University in the early 1980s, she was the first black person many Mormon students had ever met, and she spent a good bit of her college time debunking stereotypes about African-Americans. Then she converted to Mormonism herself, and went on to spend a good deal of her adult life correcting assumptions about Mormons.

So the matchup in this year’s presidential election comes as a watershed moment for her, symbolizing the hard-won acceptance of racial and religious minorities.

“A Mormon candidate and a black candidate? Who would have thunk?” Ms. Driessen said. “I think 30 years ago, we would not have had this choice.”

After examining the dual — and sometimes conflicting — identities, she has decided that she will cast her vote for President Obama over Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee. Ms. Driessen believes that there is plenty in the Book of Mormon to support Mr. Obama’s candidacy, and she likes to cite chapter and verse, like Mosiah 29:39 and 23:13.

“It says it is your job, people, to elect people who will protect your liberties,” said Ms. Driessen, a constitutional lawyer. “That is my standard.”

Being black, liberal and Mormon, Ms. Driessen represents a small but emerging point of view that is in stark contrast to the traditional profile of American Latter-day Saints, who tend to be conservative, Republican and white.

While many within the church community are rooting for Mr. Romney, the minority Mormon voices are becoming more assertive, perhaps because of the strength of their growing numbers. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has experienced explosive worldwide growth through its missionary work, particularly in countries with large black populations. In the United States, it is the second-fastest growing religion, according to a recently released decennial census of religions.

While the church does not track members by race, there are thriving Mormon churches with hundreds of black members today in many urban areas, including Washington, Chicago and New York, although African-Americans represent only a tiny fraction of the six million Mormons in the United States.

The conversion of blacks in this country has been a challenge, given the church’s turbulent history of excluding people of black African descent. Until 1978, black men were not allowed to become priests or bishops; dark skin was considered a biblical curse. During the 1960s, when Mitt Romney’s father, George, made civil rights a personal priority during his time as a Republican governor of Michigan, his progressive views put him at odds with church doctrine.

Over the last decades, however, there has been an aggressive campaign to diversify, and racism in the church — which was itself once powerless and persecuted as a cult — has been repeatedly denounced.

“I feel a definite sense of pride in the U.S.A. that we have a Mormon candidate and black candidate,” said Catherine Spruill, who lives in a suburb of Salt Lake and is mixed-race like Mr. Obama and Mormon like Mr. Romney. “I feel pride for my people, because America picked that.”

There is even a black Mormon Congressional candidate, Mia Love, who will soon be on the ballot in Utah. She is running as a conservative Republican for the newly created Fourth District, which includes part of Salt Lake County. A campaign video describes her in these terms, among others: “mother, mayor, leader, gun owner.”

With the larger tent has come a more diverse array of political ideologies and expressions in a church culture that has been known for its strict hierarchy and members’ adherence to authority and rules, for instance the prohibitions on caffeine and alcohol. Of more than a dozen black Mormons interviewed for this article across the country, eight were Democratic-leaning Obama supporters, two were undecided, and two others said they were committed to voting for Mr. Romney.

“With respect to Romney being a Mormon, bless his heart,” said Tracie J. Walker, 48, of Washington. “I think he’s a strange character. He got confused by money, I think. So he doesn’t understand reality today.”

None of the black Mormons who spoke to a reporter said he or she would vote strictly based on race or religion, only conscience. Even after the president’s endorsement of same-sex marriages last Wednesday, invoking Christianity and the golden rule — “treat others the way you would want to be treated,” he said — Mormon supporters of Mr. Obama did not waver, saying they made a distinction between their own private religious beliefs and what they think is right for secular society.

“To my way of thinking the secular government has no business messing in these private affairs among individuals,” Ms. Driessen said. “What other people choose to do is not a problem for me, as long as it doesn’t harm me.”

 

Ms. Spruill, 31, who converted to Mormonism while serving in the Navy 13 years ago, said the decision did not matter to her, either, adding, “I applaud the president’s fortitude.”

 

Religion is always on her mind, however, and she particularly enjoys a certain political punch line that is making the rounds among some black Mormons here.

 

It goes like this: Mr. Obama calls Mr. Romney to say he thinks it is time the country had a Mormon president. But just as Mr. Romney is thanking the president for the apparent concession, Mr. Obama interrupts him to say, “My baptism is on Saturday.”

 

Undoubtedly, some black Mormons are still wrestling with the decision of whom to vote for.

 

“It’s tough because you’ve got the first black president, but he’s running against a candidate who has the values I believe in,” said Eddie Gist, 43, a black Mormon who lives in Salt Lake City. Mr. Gist said he may end up leaning more toward Mr. Romney, but added, “I really can’t go wrong either way.”

 

In 1971, the church founded the Genesis Group, a support organization for black Mormons in Salt Lake City. Today, it counts nearly 500 members, according to Don Harwell, the group’s president, who converted in 1983.

 

Mr. Harwell, who is black and originally from Los Angeles, said that church members kept politics out of Genesis activities and temple life, so he could not speak to their presidential preferences. As for himself, he is a registered Republican. Mr. Harwell and his wife, Jerri Harwell, a professor who supports Mr. Obama, are frequent political sparring partners.

 

“I’ve met Romney, I’ve talked to Romney, and I feel good about Romney,” he said over dinner one night this month with Ms. Harwell in Salt Lake. “My biggest thing is getting somebody in there with integrity and business sense, and that’s what he brings.”

 

Ms. Harwell disagreed: “He hasn’t even worked in years.”

 

Asked whether she felt compelled to bend to peer pressure in conservative Utah, where religion and culture are so thoroughly intertwined, Ms. Harwell said no.

 

“The religion is very much a part of me, but I was born black and I will die black.”

 

Beyond that, she feels that Mr. Obama is the better candidate. “My problem with Romney, politically, is that he cannot relate to the common man,” she said. “I’m afraid of what would happen to the economy given his frame of reference.”

 

Paul Sleet, a black computer systems engineer and photographer in St. Louis, joined the Mormon Church in 1989. He has five children, one of whom is serving as a missionary.

 

“Everything the church represents seems to be more clearly represented by Michelle and Barack Obama,” he said.

 

“I’m 100 percent Mormon and committed to my religion,” he said, “but I’ve never really thought about whether I’d have the same pride in a Mormon being elected president.”

 

“I don’t know if I’d have the same tears in my eyes.”


http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/23/us/for-black-mormons-a-political-choice-like-no-other.html?_r=1&ref=us


One thought on “Black Mormons and the Politics of Identity

  • September 18, 2013 at 4:59 pm
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    Blacks Ridiculed again by the Mormon Church
    By Lee B. Baker, Former Mormon Bishop

    For several years now, every Tuesday evening I have had the great privilege of addressing the Christian and Mormon listeners of Worship FM 101.7 in Monrovia, the capital City of Liberia, West Africa.

    I have come to know several of the station managers and a number of the more frequent callers to the weekly program. Through their comments, questions and photographs, I have been genuinely moved to see the application of their unyielding faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Over the past few months the question of racist teachings in the Book of Mormon and from the past Leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been on the minds of the Liberian converts to Mormonism and the many true Christians who struggle to understand how such a Church can be growing in Africa.

    I believe the answer is relatively simple; it has been the perfect merging of a sincere lack of knowledge on the part of the Mormon converts and a disturbing lack of accountability on the part of the Mormon leaders. A near total lack of knowledge across Africa specific to some of the more explicit teachings found within the Mormon Scriptures, principally that Black Skin is a representation of wickedness and even less information concerning the racism and bigotry openly and officially taught by the early Leadership of the Mormon Church. This combined with the current Church Leadership’s inability to clearly and specifically reject its own racist teachings both in print and from its past Senior Leadership, has left the Black Race with only a short irresponsible and offensively juvenile Official Statement that claims the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knows very little about its own race-based policy that had lasted for well over 100 years:

    “It is not known precisely why, how or when this restriction began in the Church, but it has ended.”

    Maintaining a detailed and comprehensive history of every aspect and teaching of the Church has been both one of the hallmarks and one of the downfalls of Mormon Church. Within the relatively young Church, authoritative documentation, however corrupt it may have been, has never been in short supply. Each of the Senior Leaders of the Mormon Church has had several official biographers as well as an army of Church authorized historians to record for the faithful Mormon all facets of the History of the Church. In fact, one of my first of many “Callings” in the Mormon Church was that of a Ward (Congregational) Historian, long before I became a Bishop.

    The peculiar assertion that the Mormon Church itself does not know the details of its very own race-based policy of restricting the Blacks from holding the Priesthood is tremendously embarrassing for all Mormons and exceptionally degrading for anyone who actually believes it.

    As a former local leader of the Mormon Church, I have repeatedly assured the African members of the Mormon Church that the documents and “Scriptures” I have read to them over the air are both Authorized and Official for the time period they are relevant to. I clearly state the current position of total acceptance of all Races by the Church, but I must highlight the fact that the Book of Mormon still carries it’s obviously racist message that dark skin was a curse and Jesus was white. I have said many times on-air that like the Mormon Missionaries, I too believe that every African should have a copy of the Book of Mormon, if only to learn the truly racist teaching of the Mormons.

    I have and will continue to teach the African Nations from the authentic Mormon Scriptures and the Church History documents, which I had purchased from the Mormon Church to know my past responsibilities as a Mormon Bishop. The official records of the Mormon Church include many jokes and sermons given within the Official Semi-Annual General Conference of the faithful Mormons, using the “N-word”, Darky and Sambo. Additionally, these Church published books record nearly 100 graphic sermons and lessons that clearly teach the principle, practice and policy that Black Skin was, is and will remain forever the Curse of Cain.

    Only in the recent past has the “Complete History” of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints come to the attention of its own membership, much less to the under developed regions of the world. As this information is discovered, an ever increasing number of members of the Mormon Church have come into a personal crisis of faith, most notably Elder Hans Mattsson of Sweden, a General Authority of the Mormon Church who has gone public with his doubts and questions.

    Not unique to Africa, has been the Mormon Church’s training of young Missionaries to strictly avoid any discussion of several of the more embarrassing, yet true, teachings of the 183 year old Church. Chief among these subjects has been Polygamy and Blacks and the Priesthood.

    With the smooth talent of a skilled politician, the Mormon Church has ended its Official Statement with the following hypocritical and deceitful, but technically accurate quote:

    “The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.”

    As a former Mormon Bishop and member of the Mormon Church for over 32 years, let me be of some help with the translation of this very carefully crafted message. The two key noteworthy phrases are: “in the absence of direct revelation” and “These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.”

    I will address the most obvious first, clearly the “previous statements” from the Church and its Leadership “do not” represent the Church doctrine today. The policy was reversed in 1978 and there is no question as to the policy today. The hypocritical deception is that between 1845 and 1978 those “statements” did, very much “DID” not “DO” represent past Church doctrine. Yet, I do give full credit to the clever Mormon authors and editors for their most skillful use of the English language.

    And finally, the most revealing and enlightening statement from the Mormon Church is: “in the absence of direct revelation”. So then, it is incredibly true and accurate that without any mockery or sarcasm; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had for nearly 100 years, restricted a significant portion of the human race, millions and millions from God’s intended blessings of Eternal Marriage, Salvation and even Godhood, without knowing why they did it, all without “direct revelation”?

    This Official Statement of religious shame and embarrassment comes from the Headquarters of a Church that claims to be guided in all things by “direct revelation”. How then, did such an exclusive doctrine based on prejudice, bigotry and racism become so accepted, so authoritative, so convincing and so commanding for so long, without “direct revelation”?

    As a former Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I give testimony that what they have stated is true, in that, they are racist and do not hide the History of the Church from its members or the public, this, their Official Statement on Race and the Church demonstrates that fact.

    I believe that the truly wicked teachings as well as the repulsive history of the Mormon Church concerning Polygamy, Polyandry, Blood Atonement, and Blacks and the Priesthood is available for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

    It is my prayer that all Mormons and non-Mormons will come to know the true history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That every man, woman and young adult on the earth today will find the time to read the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price from cover to cover to see the deception they hold, and then… read the Word of God with the eyes of a child, and follow the true Jesus, the true Christ found only in the Bible.

    Sincerely,

    Lee B. Baker
    Former Mormon Bishop

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