There was an outburst of drama in the Republican primary recently when Reverend Robert Jeffress, a Texas Baptist minister and Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) surrogate, stated that “… the Mormon Church is a cult” during the Values Voters Summit in Washington D.C. There was little shame in Jeffress’ game in follow-up interviews. “I am a member of the Southern Baptist Convention and we have always taken the position that the Mormon Church is a cult.”
While Perry was suddenly faced with his own “Rev. Wright Moment,” Jeffress’ comments pushed the question of whether a Mormon can be President back into the spotlight. Evangelical voters who only want a Christian President will have to grapple with that question and others.
But concerns over the Mormon Church don’t stop with Evangelical voters. Black voters will also have to consider whether past segregation in the Mormon Church will impact their vote should one of their members take on President Obama in 2012.
The Mormon Church discriminated against Black people and promoted segregation in the church for over 130 years. Black people were not allowed in the priesthood and were not permitted to enter certain Mormon Temples from 1848 to 1978. Darrick Evenson, a former Mormon Missionary and developer of the Black Mormon website, observes that “[f]or 130 years the Mormon Church taught that Negroes were the cursed and inferior children of Cain. This ‘Curse of Cain Doctrine’ was presented as ‘a doctrine of the Church’ from the days of Brigham Young in the late 1840s until June 8th 1978, when the Mormon Church ended the Priesthood-ban and allowed black Mormons into Mormon Temples and the Mormon priesthood (which all Mormon males hold).”
Mitt Romney, presently frontrunner and “inevitable” presidential nominee for the Republican Party, is an active member of the Mormon Church. Romney has not publicly referred to the history of racial discrimination in the Mormon Church and has not offered an opinion whether he personally believed in the discriminatory practices of the church. The former Massachusetts Governor’s public comments on his religious beliefs date back to 2007 during his last run for the GOP nomination where he stated that he stood by his religion and support for the Mormon Church.
“Romney should publicly acknowledge ugly history, denounce it and say he will not let the history of the Mormon Church interfere with being fair and open,” said Bishop John Hurst Adams, a retired Senior Bishop of the AME Church. “When Kennedy ran for President he had to publicly state that he did not support the beliefs in the Catholic Church that conflicted with democracy.”
According to Evenson, John Huntsman (also a GOP Candidate for President and member of the Mormon Church) was asked if banning Blacks from Mormon temples and priesthood was a mistake and he said: “Yes.” Romney has consistently dodged the issue by saying “I’m not a spokesman for my Church, but I’ll talk about my civil rights record instead.” He dodges the issue, argues Evenson.
The Mormon Church has developed programs to support Black members of their church. The Genesis Group was established in the early seventies, and its website states that it is the official Black website of the Mormon Church. The purpose of the Genesis Group is to strengthen members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the official name of the Mormon Church) by supporting and edifying Black members, their families and friends, and individuals interested in the Church. According to Genesis Group president Don Harwell “there are no predominately Black congregations.”
“The church does not separate people by race. Some churches are by language like Spanish and Polynesian,” adds Harwell. The Genesis Group is predominately in Salt Lake, but there are smaller groups across the country. The Salt Lake Genesis Group is about 60% white and 40% black, Harwell said.
Of course, the Mormon Church is aware of the negative perceptions. In a statement announcing the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, Elder David F. Evans, executive director of the Church’s Missionary Department, said “many people are not familiar with our faith, and that can sometimes lead to misconceptions. The best way to understand Mormons is to meet them and get to know them personally. These ads are an invitation to do that.”
The “I’m a Mormon” campaign also includes Black members of the church.