Author of The Universe Bends Toward Justice: the Bible, the Church and the Body Politic (Orbis, 2010)
When it comes to others’ choice of religions, I’m pretty much a live-and-let-live guy. In fact, I don’t believe in religious litmus tests of any kind. Frankly, I think they are self-righteous and insulting. Yet I must admit that there is something about Mitt Romney’s religion that I find deeply troubling, particularly in light of the possibility that he could become the next president of this nation. What concerns me is this: the Book of Mormon, the book that Mitt Romney and all Mormons embrace as divinely revealed scripture that is more sacred, more true, and more inerrant than any other holy book on earth, declares that black people are cursed. That’s right. Cursed. And not only accursed, but lazy and aesthetically ugly to boot.
I’m not talking about ascribed racism such as we see in Christianity, in which racist meanings are attributed to certain verses of the Bible that actually contain no such meanings, as with the Gen. 9:25 cursing of Canaan (not Ham!) which, though used as “proof” of black wickedness and inferiority, in actuality has nothing to do with race.
And no, I’m not talking about a single ambiguous, cherry-picked verse, either. I’d much rather that were the case. The sad truth is that the Book of Morman says it explicitly and in numerous passages: black people are cursed by God and our dark skin is the evidence of our accursedness. Here are a few examples:
And the Lord had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; 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 (2 Nephi 5:21).
And I beheld, after they had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark and loathsome and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations (1 Nephi 12:23).
“O my brethren, I fear that unless ye shall repent of your sins that their skins will be whiter than yours, when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God. (Jacob 3:8).
And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren, who consisted of Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph, and Sam, who were just and holy men (Alma 3: 6).
It would have been infinitely more righteous if Mormons had relegated the sentiments of these verses to the scriptural sidelines of their faith, but the historical record tells us otherwise. Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of Mormonism, repeatedly ordered his Church to uphold all slavery laws. Although Smith had a change of heart toward the end of his life, his successor, Brigham Young, did not. Young instituted social and ecclesiastical segregation as the Church’s official policies, thus excluding people of black African descent from priesthood ordination and full participation in temple ceremonies, regardless of their actual skin color. Moreover, Brigham Young, whom Mormons revere almost equally with Smith, proved to the end of his life to be a brutal white supremacist who fervently supported the continued enslavement of African Americans; he was so convinced of black accursedness that he declared that if any Mormon had sex with a person of color, “the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot.”
The Book of Mormon’s teaching of the accursedness and, therefore, the inferiority of blacks — if blacks are cursed, then by definition they are inferior to the divinely acceptable whites — was reaffirmed by numerous Mormon leaders for a century and a half. As late as 1969, even after the Civil Rights Movement had dismantled de jure segregation throughout the land, David O. McKay, then president and “living prophet” of Mormonism, still publicly justified its segregationist policies by declaring that “the seeming discrimination by the Church toward the Negro… goes back into the beginning with God.”
Now, some will argue that I should dismiss the codified racism of the Book of Mormon as the unfortunate folklore of a bygone era because of the 1978 revelation by Spencer W. Kimball, the Church’s president and “living prophet” at that time, that after a century and a half black males were finally un-accursed enough to fully participate in Mormonism’s priesthood and sacred temple ceremonies. However, even if we ignore the suspiciously coincidental timing of this “revelation” (it conveniently appeared when the Church’s federal tax-exempt status was imperiled by its racial policies), an attentive reading reveals that Kimball’s proclamation did not in any way address the question of whether or not the Church still considered the Book of Mormon’s assertions of black inferiority to be divinely authorized. In fact, the specific contents of Kimball’s revelation were never made public. Nor has the Church ever disavowed the Book’s white supremacist passages or the past racist practices and pronouncements of its leaders.
What makes this all the more problematic for me is that at no time has Mitt Romney ever publicly indicated that he seriously questioned the divine inspiration of the Book of Mormon’s teachings about race, much less that he has repudiated them. It is true that in a 2008 Meet the Press interview with the late Tim Russert, Romney did vigorously assert his belief in equal rights for all Americans in every facet of life. As part of that narrative, he cited his parents’ “tireless” advocacy for blacks’ civil rights, including the dramatic exit of his father, Michigan Governor George Romney, from the 1964 Republican convention as a protest against nominee Barry Goldwater’s racial politics. He also shared that he wept when he learned of Spencer Kimball’s aforementioned revelation. Yet from Romney’s remarks it is not clear whether he wept for joy because Mormonism was eschewing its segregationist policies or if he wept from relief that the announcement promised to quiet the public outrage that those policies were causing. And significantly, while he recited his parents’ efforts to confront racial injustice, Mitt Romney pointed to no such activities of his own.
But let me be clear: this is not a “gotcha” political ploy. In all honesty, I am neither saying nor implying in the slightest that Mitt Romney is a racist. I simply do not know that to be the case. Nor do I mean to overlook the racial progress that the Mormon Church has made in the last several decades. What I do mean to say is 1) that Americans of goodwill owe it to ourselves not to turn a blind eye to the possible implications of the white supremacist legacy of candidate Romney’s religious tradition, no matter how noble our intentions; and 2) that Mitt Romney himself owes it to America to address the issue. Why? Because Romney was tutored into adulthood by a holy book that declares that all Americans like me are cursed by God. And he is not only a believer; he has served as a leader in his faith. This is indeed a crucial point for consideration because, as this nation has seen time and time again, the inevitable consequence of America’s policy-makers considering people of color as inferior to whites is that blacks’ social and material interests have also been considered inferior — and quite often treated that way.
I admit that this question of religion and racism is quite complicated and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I do know that recognizing the equal rights of black Americans under the law, while of paramount importance, is not the same as recognizing our intellectual capabilities and moral character as inherently equal to whites. And I am aware of one thing more: that when Tim Russert invited Romney to repudiate his Church’s racist legacy on Meet the Press, Romney refused.
That is why, Mr. Romney, as an American citizen whose president you seek to become, I must insist that you honestly and forthrightly attest to me and all Americans of goodwill that you actually can be my president, too, fully and completely. You can accomplish this by publicly disavowing the portions of your holy book that so sorely denigrate the humanity of me, my loved ones and all people of black African descent.
It is incumbent that you do this, candidate Romney, for the sake of all Americans.