Romney and the Racism Charge
Religion & Liberty Online

Romney and the Racism Charge

One element that came out in the aftermath of “Romney’s religion speech,” an event highly touted in the run-up and in days following, was the charge that Mormonism is essentially a racist faith (or at least was until 1978), and that in unabashedly embracing the “faith of his fathers” so publicly (and uncritically), Mitt Romney did not distance himself from or express enough of a critical attitude toward the official LDS policy regarding membership by blacks before 1978.

One example of a person who raised this concern quite vociferously is political analyst Lawrence O’Donnell, who as a guest on the McLaughlin Group on the episode immediately following Romney’s speech, said this of Romney (among many other things):

Here’s the problem. He dare not discuss his religion. And he fools people like Pat Buchanan, who should know better. This was the worst speech, the worst political speech, of my lifetime, because this man stood there and said to you, “This is the faith of my fathers.” And you and none of these commentators who liked this speech realize that the faith of his father is a racist faith. As of 1978, it was an officially racist faith. And for political convenience, in 1978 it switched and it said, “Okay, black people can be in this church.”

Mitt Romney was 31 years-old in 1978 when the LDS church altered its policy toward “priesthood” membership for black males, citing a new revelation. You can check out the entire exchange between O’Donnell and the other members of the McLaughlin Group panel here:

It seems to me that Pat Buchanan misses O’Donnell’s point in the exchange. Buchanan cites scandalous examples from Christianity’s past, such as the condoning of slavery for 1,500 years, in effect to say that all religions have their problems, and that doesn’t mean that we associate every historical evil from a religion’s past with its contemporary adherents. But what O’Donnell’s charge is meant to show is that folks like Pat Buchanan and other Christians are inclined to judge their tradition’s own past, and pronounce that such and such a practice was an objective evil and upon reflection ex post facto, incompatible with the fundamental beliefs of their faith.

From O’Donnell’s perspective it’s precisely this criticism that is lacking in Romney. As Byron York puts it,

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.

It did pop up on Romney’s Meet the Press interview with Tim Russert the following Sunday morning:

Part of Romney’s defense is his claim that his family’s practices point to their beliefs about race in America: “My dad marched with MLK.” Now there’s controversy surrounding that claim.
As one reporter puts it, “It turns out that Romney and King never marched together. They never marched in the same city. And they never marched on the same day.” The Romney campaign’s explanation is that Romney’s father participated in a march that was part of a larger series of marches and events planned by Martin Luther King. So saying “My dad marched with MLK,” is analogous to saying something like, “My dad stood with Churchill.” The point would be not that your father literally stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Churchill, but that he metaphorically “stood” with him against the Nazis.

That’s the campaign’s line: “On Wednesday, Romney’s campaign said his recollections of watching his father, an ardent civil rights supporter, march with King were meant to be figurative.” So not only did Romney say that his dad marched with MLK, but that he “saw” his dad march with MLK, but one claim or both were in some sense were meant figuratively. (Update: More here on the “marching with MLK” question. Romney says “saw” is a “figure of speech.” HT: The Corner. Speaking of the National Review folks, given the magazine’s endorsement of Romney, this has to be troubling.)

Previously I’ve written on the question of Romney’s Mormonism that “Evangelicals would do well I think to keep Luther’s concept of vocation in view, judging all political candidates not firstly on their religious creed but on the soundness of their view of the role of civil government.” But where religious beliefs do have direct political, social, or cultural implications, they do become fair game. Everyone seems to agree on this. They disagree whether this aspect of Mormon history meets that criterion.

Warren Cole Smith writes, “certain qualifications make a candidate unfit to serve. There was a time when racism or anti-Semitism would not disqualify a candidate for service. Today, it does, and rightly so.” I would like to see evangelicals who support Romney show how and why his church’s formerly official racist policy doesn’t have social, cultural, and/or political implications. Others have criticized Romney supporters like Wayne Grudem and Hugh Hewitt, the latter noted as failing “to thoroughly consider many of the specific points of pressure Romney could face as he runs the presidential gauntlet, such as racism from past Mormon leaders” in his book on Romney.

But even in demanding this explanation (either from Romney or from evangelicals who support him), Hewitt’s larger point, which he makes in a follow-up interview with Lawrence O’Donnell, still stands. People from other religions ought to be prepared to answer similar questions about the policies and practices of their own traditions.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.