I was tooling around behind the scenes at the Ask Mormon Girl site this week, and I learned something that surprised me. What are the top five Google queries that lead people to this site?
what do mormons believe about black people
mormons and blacks
mormon beliefs about black people
mormon beliefs on blacks
mormons beliefs about black people
Yes, that surprised me too.
But is it really surprising that as the polls tighten, millions of African-American voters who know very little about the LDS Church except its history of discrimination want to know what Mitt Romney really believes, where his heart is, and how he will govern. So from the security and privacy of their own computers, they’re doing what we do these days: they’re asking Google.
They are not alone. The fact is that most Americans still know very, very little about Mormonism, even after a protracted media “Mormon moment.” Governor Romney has chosen to keep his religion generally out of the conversation, and aside from a few early season flubs Democrats have generally done the same. Really. Romney has faced nothing that even comes close to what Barack Obama has faced with the consistent misrepresentation of his religion (he is Protestant, not Muslim) or the Jeremiah Wright controversy of 2008, even though you really don’t have to dig that deep into the archives of Mormonism to find material that if spun the wrong way and sensationalized could incite a national reaction as well. Given that LDS people generally feel misunderstood by and a bit defensive against the wider world, I think that’s important to remember.
Time and time again during the last year and a half, I’ve encountered questions about the LDS Church and racism from African-American people. Always, always, the question has been posed very politely—that too is significant, given the general deterioration of tone in political and internet discourse.
Just a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending an hour on the air with Dr. Richard Cooper at AM 900 WURD in Philadelphia: a historically Black radio station featuring programming for Philadelphia’s Black community. Dr. Cooper opened the phone lines, and right away, there was the question: “Word on the street is they didn’t even let Black people in their churches until 1978. What do Mormons believe about Black people now.”
And again, this week, a query came by email:
“I was wanting to know about the different levels of heaven and if black people were included in the groups of people that are able to go to them when they die.”
Here’s what I wrote back:
“Yes. According to Mormon theology, black people can go to heaven. The Church did discriminate against men and women of African descent until 1978. Men were not permitted to hold the priesthood, and men and women were not allowed to participate in Mormon temple ceremonies. That policy was racist. And I don’t know a single Mormon who isn’t glad that it is over.”
For a more complete answer that gives a fuller historical account of the history of race and racism in Mormonism, please see my original post “What do Mormons believe about African-Americans” here. I also talk about the priesthood ban in chapter two of The Book of Mormon Girl.
And it’s worth knowing that earlier this year, after the Washington Post did a story on race and the LDS Church, citing a BYU religion professor who presented what sounded to him like good old common sense but what sounded to 99% of the rest of us (Mormons included) like Mormon-flavored racist malarkey, the LDS Church issued a statement disavowing racism—past, present, and future.
The LDS Church has never outright apologized for its racist past practice, as have other denominations. But I know plenty of LDS people who regret that the faith we love ever excluded people of African descent from full fellowship. Speaking only as myself—just another rank-and-file Mormon–I’m not afraid to say I’m sorry. And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.
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