The Corner

Mormonism, Romney, and Race

Kathryn – It seems to me that the race issue is where religion and politics most clearly intersect in Romney’s case. Like it or not, if Romney becomes the Republican nominee, Democrats will bring up the “Mormon racism” charge again.  You can just bet on it.  But more immediately, it will be interesting to see what role, if any, it will play in voters’ decisions in the primaries.  The fact is, it has become a staple of political campaigns for candidates to be asked about their association with institutions that discriminate.  There was a huge uproar in the 2000 campaign, for example, about George W. Bush and Bob Jones University.  (Although my favorite, if trivial, example was the time Bill Clinton was asked about playing golf at an all-white country club, and he responded, with a completely straight face, that he had only played nine holes.)  In any event, it’s common practice to ask about country clubs, social groups, schools, etc.

The issue now is whether that kind of question also applies to Romney’s church.  And the problem, for Romney, is that, to my knowledge at least, he has not said simply that the LDS church was wrong to exclude blacks from the priesthood and top leadership positions before 1978.  Voters don’t mind it – they even like it – when a candidate says something in the past was wrong but that now it is right.  But today, on “Meet the Press,” Romney wouldn’t say that.

For non-Mormons, like me, the question seems to focus on the issue of revelation.  The LDS church policy was changed in 1978 when the president of the church said he had received a revelation dictating that leadership positions should be open to everyone.  At the time, church officials sent out this letter:

In early June of this year, the First Presidency announced that a revelation had been received by President Spencer W. Kimball extending priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members of the Church. President Kimball has asked that I advise the conference that after he had received this revelation, which came to him after extended meditation and prayer in the sacred rooms of the holy temple, he presented it to his counselors, who accepted it and approved it…

I asked about the revelation several weeks ago, when a few of us in the NR Washington bureau met with Mormon Elders M. Russell Ballard and Quentin L. Cook, who had come to Washington to meet with staffers of several publications.  (They were concerned about the image of the church; they did not discuss Romney or his candidacy and offered no opinion on it.)  When I asked why the church changed position in 1978, the answer was, if I recall correctly, that they did not know.  It wasn’t a flip answer; they were saying that they could not know why God had given that revelation to Kimball at that particular moment.  They were not inclined to say that the church had been wrong before.  That’s a built-in dilemma of the system; if a church says it is led by revelation, and then says it was wrong, it’s kind of like saying God was wrong.

I get the impression that that has put Romney in a very tight box, and is why he is disinclined to say that the church was wrong before 1978.  Other churches, and all sorts of other institutions, have admitted being wrong about things in the past and have changed their policies.  The general public understands that.  But refusing to admit it sometimes rubs people the wrong way.

This morning, I spoke with Michael Otterson, a spokesman for the LDS church. (I met him at the Washington meeting).  He said the church has never made an explicit admission that its pre-1978 policy was wrong.  But he referred me to a statement from a senior apostle in the church, Bruce R. McConkie, made just after the 1978 change: “Forget everything I have said, or what…Brigham Young…or whomsoever has said…that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.”


There’s no doubt that the vast majority of Mormons were delighted when the church changed its policy.  “The president of the church, at the time, had been pleading and praying and pondering and agonizing for some substantial amount of time,” Otterson told me, “looking for some guidance on this.”  When Kimball announced that word had finally come, Mormons celebrated, and Otterson stressed that the church has since made a huge effort to reach blacks, with a quarter-million members in Africa and increasing numbers, including bishops and “stake presidents,” in the United States.

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.


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