I’m waiting for the story that transcends the flat ethnicity paradigm and gets the deeper and more persistent question of religion and moral bearings:
How does the most religiously devout candidate in recent memory reconcile a life of religious commitment with a values-neutral approach to work, livelihood, and the marketplace?
Why does religion play an outsized role in the politics of gay marriage and contraception but apparently has no say when it comes to big-ticket items like national spending and economic policy?
That profound disconnect certainly did not originate with Romney, but it may in fact be the key to understanding how he would lead and govern.
Joanna Brooks, from her Religion Dispatches’s piece, “Romney: “A Life Balanced Between Fear and Greed”?”
Is she describing the disconnect between the spaces in which we live and the way we’ve publicly lived religion since the 60’s?
The Wrong Side of White: Black Mormons in a Presidential Year
by W. Paul Reeve, guest contributor
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism) has consistently found itself on the wrong side of white. In a recent New York Times article, “Black Mormons and the Politics of Identity,” an embedded video begins with a Times reporter commenting “it may come as a surprise to people that there are black Mormons in America.” It is a telling statement that captures the nexus of the LDS Church’s racial past and its efforts to realize a more diverse racial future.
Although few in number, blacks have been a part of the LDS movement from its founding to the present. The first documented African American to join the LDS Church was a former slave known only in the historical record as “Black Pete.” He became a member at Kirtland, Ohio, in 1830, the year of the Church’s founding. More significantly, at least two black men, Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis, were ordained to the Mormon priesthood in the Church’s early years. Abel participated in Mormon temple rituals at Kirtland and was baptized as proxy for a deceased friend and two relatives at Nauvoo, Illinois.
In this regard, it is most accurate to speak of integrated priesthood and temples in Mormonism’s early years, a progressive stance in a charged national racial context. At the same time that the nation moved toward legal segregation in the wake of Reconstruction’s demise, the open space for full black participation in Mormonism gave way in fits and starts. By the first decade of the twentieth century race-based priesthood and temple bans were firmly in place.
It is impossible to understand that trajectory without first understanding the ways in which white Mormons themselves were racialized. The prevailing American fear of interracial mixing played a significant role in that process, especially as outsiders projected their own alarm over race mixing onto Mormons. At Kirtland, outsiders suggested that Black Pete received revelations to marry white women. In Missouri settlers argued that Mormons were inviting free black converts to that state, not only to incite a slave rebellion but to steal white women.
After the Mormons openly announced the practice of polygamy in 1852, the charge of interracial mixing took on a life of its own. One Army doctor filed a report with the United States Senate in which he claimed polygamy was giving rise to a degenerate “race.” Political cartoons depicted interracial polygamous families, sometimes with black, Asian, and Native American wives mixed in among the white. In a variety of ways outsiders constructed Mormons as racially suspect, facilitators of interracial mixing and therefore of racial contamination. As one news account put it, “the days of the white race are numbered in this country.” At the crux of this fearful deterioration was the “American of the future,” “a black Mormon.”
Against such a charged national racial backdrop, Mormons responded with an effort to claim whiteness for themselves. In 1852, Brigham Young drew upon the curses of Cain, Ham, and Canaan, derived from long standing Judeo-Christian Biblical exegeses, to bar black men from the priesthood. Leaders later expanded the policy to include temple worship for black men and women, except for proxy baptisms for their deceased ancestors. In 1908, leaders cemented those policies in place when historical forgetfulness trumped verifiable evidence to misremember that the bans had always been there, divine mandates that only God could rescind.
With that reconstructed memory as the new guiding principle, it took Spencer W. Kimball, the faith’s mild and unassuming prophet, to overturn the ban. In 1978, Kimball announced a revelation which returned Mormonism to its universalistic roots and reintegrated its priesthood and temples.
Since that time, Mormon growth in Africa has been rapid, while the pace among blacks at home has been much slower. The bans and the doctrines that supported them sometimes plague missionary efforts among blacks and make it difficult to retain converts once they join. LDS leaders have yet to repudiate past teachings which shored up the bans, a lingering problem that makes it possible for various iterations of those teachings to live on in the hearts and minds of some members.
In the meantime, black Mormons, like their coreligionists of all stripes, must decide how they will vote in this historic election year. It is a contest that is poised to pit the nation’s first president of African ancestry against the first Mormon of any color to capture a major party nomination. Mitt Romney’s ascendency to the top of the GOP ticket might signal to some Mormons that their historically pariah faith has finally arrived. In that regard, Romney may very well mark Mormonism’s full racial passage to whiteness. It is an awkwardly-timed if not tepid acceptance that coincides with Mormon attempts to claim a more diverse racial identity for themselves — witness the “I Am a Mormon” national media campaign featuring a heterogeneous group of Latter-day Saints as the faces of modern Mormonism.
Unlike his Mormon ancestors, no one today questions Mitt Romney’s whiteness. One culture critic went so far as to call him “the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory.” It is a designation that Mormons craved a century ago, but one that comes as a liability today. The historical arc of Mormonism’s racial dance is richly ironic. In the nineteenth century they were denigrated as not white enough, by the twenty-first century, as too white.
W. Paul Reeve is Associate Professor of History at the University of Utah. He is writing a book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, under contract at Oxford University Press.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Romney, Mormonism, and the American Compromise
by Terryl Givens, guest contributor
Mitt Romney is threatening to disturb the American compromise with Mormonism.
Nineteenth-century observers were largely indifferent to the new religion Joseph Smith founded in 1830. Most dismissed his claims about angels and gold plates as just another example of American gullibility. “Had we not seen in our own days similar impostures practiced with success,” yawned one Illinois contemporary, “[Mormonism] would have excited our special wonder; as it is, nothing excites surprise.” But in Missouri and Illinois local tensions erupted in violence, and national concern intensified when Brigham Young — relatively safe in the refuge of Utah — announced a system of plural marriage in 1852.
For the next forty years, from the popular press and pulpits alike, cries for the eradication of this “relic of barbarism” streamed forth from the pulpits, press, and party platforms. Then came concessions — but limited concessions — from both sides. Mormons abandoned polygamy and political isolationism. And America granted partial accommodation. The deal was signed in 1893 — but it was a devil’s bargain. Here is what happened.
At the choral competition of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, on Friday September 8, in front of packed crowds, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir dazzled the audience and the judges alike, to win the silver medal. (The general consensus of Mormon and non-Mormon alike was that they had actually earned the gold.) The recipients of rapturous acclaim, the choir had suddenly become America’s sweetheart. They were invited to provide the patriotic music for the placement of the Liberty Bell at the Chicago Exposition. Their farewell concert was standing room only, journalists raved to a receptive public about the singing sensation, and concert promoters lobbied the choir to tour the east. Suddenly, Mormons were not just legitimate, they were popular.
And then, a funny thing happened on the way to the festivities. In conjunction with the grandiose Columbian Exposition, organizers had planned a World’s Parliament of Religion for September 11-22, 1893, in order to “promote and deepen the spirit of human brotherhood among religious men of diverse faiths.” Over three thousand invitations had been sent worldwide, to bring together representatives of every world faith and Christian denomination in a momentous gesture of interfaith respect and dialogue. Many faiths were underrepresented — but only one group was deliberately and conspicuously left out altogether. And that was, not unpredictably, the Mormons. So even while the choir was singing its way into history and America’s heart, the Mormon church was emphatically denied a voice in the nation’s first attempt at a comprehensive interfaith dialogue. What seemed like a contradiction was actually a compromise.
In the century since the Chicago fair, Mormons have been lauded for their choirs and their football. They are largely respected as good, decent, family-centered people, who are welcome to sing for presidents and dance with the stars — and everyone agrees to avoid theological questions. But as presidential nominations near, Romney’s candidacy threatens this compromise, because what a Mormon presidential candidate actually believes seems far too important to table. And when Mormon theology enters the public discussion, the words Charles Dickens wrote in 1851 strike many as still apt: “What the Mormons do, seems to be excellent; what they say, is mostly nonsense.”
But this is only true because in acquiescing to the compromise, Mormons have largely left others to frame the theological discussion. In opting to emphasize Mormon culture over Mormon theology, Mormons have too often left the media and ministers free to select the most esoteric and idiosyncratic for ridicule. So jibes about Kolob and magic underwear usurp serious engagement, much as public knowledge about the Amish is confined to a two-dimensional caricature involving a horse and buggy. But members of a faith community should recognize themselves in any fair depiction. And it is the fundamentals of Mormonism that should ground any debate worth having about Mormon beliefs or Mormon membership in the Christian community. What are these fundamentals?
- God is a personal entity, having a heart that beats in sympathy with human hearts, feeling our joy and sorrowing over our pain.
- Men and women existed as spiritual beings in the presence of God before progressing to this mortal life.
- Adam and Eve were noble progenitors of the human family, and their fall made possible human life in this realm. Men and women are born pure and innocent, with no taint of original sin. (We find plenty on our own).
- God has the desire and the power to save, through his son Jesus Christ, the entire human family in a kingdom of heaven, and except for the most perversely unwilling, that will be our destiny.
- Heaven will principally consist in the eternal duration of those relationships that matter most to us now: spouses, children, and friends.
None of these beliefs is relevant to a political candidate’s fitness for office. But they should be the starting point for any serious attempt to get at the core of Mormon belief. And there should be no compromise on that point.
Terryl Givens is Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
He told me that, as human beings, our work isn’t measured by taking the sum of our good deeds and the sum of our bad deeds and seeing how things even out. He said, ‘The only thing you need to think about is: Are you trying to improve, are you trying to do better? And if you are, then you’re a saint.’
—Bryce Clark, speaking about Mitt Romney, who as a 19-year-old sought Romney’s advice as a Mormon spiritual leader in Boston.
This profile piece in The New York Times is several months old but does a fair job of exploring the candidate’s authority as a faith leader and human being.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Proposition 8 encapsulates so many elements that intrigued me: a story of love, of struggle, loss, and redemption. It just so happens that the main antagonist to those seeking equal rights in California was the Mormon church. And, well, I grew up Mormon myself. I served a Mormon mission to Venezuela and my entire immediate family are Mormons. So, not only was I going up against very powerful political powers, but I was literally critiquing the very culture that I grew up in. So it was a unique experience for me. On one hand, I offered a ‘insiders’ knowledge into the workings of the church’s political dealings, and on the other, it was a cathartic examination of my own past. The church itself was very dismissive of us and refused an interview. We tried for months to offer them a chance to tell their side of the story. They told us, ‘We just want to ignore this and hope it all dies down.’
—Steven Greenstreet, from his interview with ReadysetDC
With all the discussion swirling about the filmmaker’s controversially titled Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street, it’s intriguing to learn that he’s also the director and producer of 8: The Mormon Proposition, a very good documentary that was selected for last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Cotton Mather called them ‘the hidden ones.’ They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed. Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history; against Antinomians and witches, these pious matrons have had little chance at all.
—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, from her paper “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668–1735” in the 1976 spring edition of American Quarterly
Did you know that the ubiquitous slogan contained within the quotation above doesn’t end with a period but a semicolon? That it comes from a Mormon feminist and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian?
Rather than a rally cry for bold behavior, Thatcher Ulrich was lauding the underappreciated and shining a light on the historically invisible. As part of her research into Puritan funeral services, she was pointing to the value of an academically “neglected” group of quiet, dutiful Puritans who did not get as much attention as the so-called witches of that era.
Thatcher Ulrich says it’s her religious upbringing that drives her to work among the stories of everyday experience:
“Coming from a minority religious culture that emphasizes the value of the ordinary person and the everyday life and doesn’t celebrate being rich and famous has a lot to do with my orientation historically. Mormon women have had a very colorful and controversial history and that is a lot of what has interested me.”
Joanna Brooks, a scholar, journalist, and Ask Mormon Girl blogger, is another one of those smart, strong female voices. Look for our interview with her this Thursday. It’s a good one!
Photo by Hillary Stein/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Capturing a Conversation in an Image
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
One of the most time-consuming and rewarding parts of my job is sifting through hundreds, if not thousands, of images — usually photographs — for use on the Web site and in the e-mail newsletter for each week’s show. I attempt to bring another layer of meaning and understanding to the broadcast/podcast, and, when I’m on my game, a moment of transcendent elegance and beauty.
Much like the music chosen in our program, each image to me is a unique content element with its own story, even if it’s not clearly defined. One photo may just catch the eye enough for you to read on; another may make you crinkle your nose a bit and wonder why did they choose that one.
I relish ambiguity and subtlety. I prefer photographs that cause the viewer to ask more questions than offer answers. I prefer to honor the viewers intellect and curiosity rather than simply report the story. For SOF, I prefer human images to inanimate objects.
For this week’s program “Inside Mormon Faith” I struggled to create a group of images to choose from. Of course, there were loads of photographs of LDS temples from all points on the globe — some absolutely haunting and dramatic:
(photo: Russell Mondy)
When I was looking for more human, pedestrian moments, I saw photos by a reporter from the Sunday Times of London (don’t you just adore the guy covering his face) of Mitt campaigning :
(photo: Tony Allen-Mills)
But, in the end, the decision came down to two images, with this one losing out by a hair. What I appreciated about it was the repeating patterns of the brick, the interaction of LDS members in different ways in a very pedestrian manner — waiting at a bus stop.
(photo: Simon Knott)
I ended up going with the image leading this post because of one thing. The young man was looking into the camera without posing but was in the background surrounded by other passersby. It had a greater depth I couldn’t ignore.
What would you have gone with? Should I have been looking in different places?