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.
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.
But there is a different story in the DNA of Oklahoma politics. It’s a truly forgotten story in the relatively brief history of this state that people fled the past to create. When the former Indian Territory became Oklahoma in 1907, it had one of the most progressive constitutions in the union, influenced largely by a farmer-labor coalition. Yet small farmers and laborers—75 percent of the population of around two million by 1920—grew less secure and more economically burdened in the early years of statehood, while “New White elites” (bankers, lawyers, merchants and landlords) flourished. These increasingly downtrodden voters gave Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs 16 percent of the Oklahoma vote in 1912, compared with 6 percent nationally. And for a tumultuous moment a decade later, a semi-Socialist grassroots Oklahoma movement elected a governor. …
There are echoes of those farmers and laborers in today’s tea partiers and Wall Street occupiers, but also in Democrats and Republicans who long to recover their faith in politics. A faith in politics, and a determination to make politics work anew for common people, finds impassioned and often eloquent expression in the forgotten pages of the Reconstructionist. Its voices, and its lessons, deserve remembering.
by Barbara Zollner, guest contributor
A composite photograph of Egyptian Salafist presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail (left), Khayrat al-Shater (center), and former Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Egypt’s election commission said on April 14, 2012 that the three men were among ten candidates barred from running for president. (Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
The battle over Egypt’s democratic future is at a significant crossroads. But while the fight for succession to Mubarak’s throne is fully under way, the rules of the competition seem to be constantly changing.
Only two weeks ago, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) announced their decision to field a candidate for the May presidential elections. They nominated businessman and multi-millionaire Khayrat al-Shater. Fostering deep-seated fears about Islamist regimes, the Washington Post expressed concern that, should Shater win the elections, Islamic law would be enforced.
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?
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.Comments