Up until now the focus of "the Mormon question" has been whether Mitt Romney can overcome the antipathy of evangelicals. Republicans should relax. If Romney is the party's nominee he'll snag almost all that vote. It doesn't matter that Mormons believe that Jesus Christ visited North America after his resurrection, and that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Mo. Those differences are nothing compared to the evangelicals' chasm with President Barack Obama.
But that doesn't mean the Mormon question is irrelevant. There is an element of the Mormon faith that hasn't gotten a lot of attention, but if Romney is the nominee it will. And I'm not talking about polygamy. The last polygamist in Romney's family was his great-grandfather, who had five wives. That's long enough ago not to be an issue. I'm talking about the relatively recent racism of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which practiced exclusion and contempt for African-Americans until the latter part of the 20th century and has yet to fully repudiate it.
It wasn't until 1978 that the LDS church allowed African-American males into the priesthood — an essential post that nearly all Mormon males attain. Yet Romney, as a Mormon missionary in France in the late 1960s, tried to convert others into a faith that practiced overt racism more than a decade after Brown vs. Board of Education. He was 31 before blacks were allowed to be full Mormons, old enough to reject a faith that acted like a pernicious, discriminatory private club.
The church's racial exclusion stems from Brigham Young, the 19th century LDS prophet who led early Mormons to Utah. According to the Mormon Journal of Discourses, a collection of sermons and spiritual guidance, he preached: "You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind."
Young, who is revered in the church to this day, claimed that the black race was cursed, noting that "the flat nose and black skin" are the marks of Cain, a reference to the belief that blacks are descendants of the biblical child of Adam who killed his brother.
Of course racism was more widespread and publicly acceptable back then. But the LDS church held on to the idea that blacks were cursed until Jimmy Carter was president. Michael Purdy, a spokesman for the LDS church, states that the church doesn't consider blacks a cursed people, or that blackness is a sign of God's punishment — but he doesn't repudiate these prior beliefs.
When Romney was asked in 2007 by Tim Russert on Meet the Press about the treatment of blacks in the church, he said he "could not have been more pleased" to see the church open its doors to African-Americans and pointed to his father's activism in the civil rights movement. But Romney dodges the question when asked if the LDS church had it wrong before 1978.
He must not think it did. In Romney's 2007 speech during his first run for president, he made it clear that he believes in every aspect of the Mormon religion in which he was once a bishop and stake president. The speech was supposed to be Romney's John F. Kennedy moment, although rather than reassuring non-Mormons, Romney did the opposite. He categorically said he would not "disavow" any Mormon precepts, proclaiming that the "faith of my fathers" is his own.
There is no reason to believe that Romney is racist or that the LDS church continues to be. But Romney, who had graduated Harvard Law School before the church changed course, was an active church member during this era of racial prejudice. He refuses to apologize for it or suggest his church was once wrong. It is this supplication that makes the Mormon question a legitimate one.