I'm still a little skeptical about Mitt Romney's campaign for the GOP nomination. The pro-Romney buzz is that he's been campaigning well, and he's launched an early air war with his "I love to veto" spot in heavy rotation on cable. But I don't think he comes across very well, he seems inauthentic and may be that rare primary candidate who is actually too good-looking (read "packaged"). Still, at the moment he's at least one of the top three or four GOP hopefuls, and this past week Al Sharpton faced down accusations of being prejudiced against Mormons, so a bit of discussion is in order. Today I'm thinking about his father, George Romney, and also about the race issue for the Mormon church.
First, I think one has to put his religion in the perspective of his family. His father George was chairman of the American Motors Company, an auto industry hotshot back in the glory days. He went on to be the moderate Republican Governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969. What that tells us is that the Romneys are sophisticated, worldly people, from Detroit, not from Moab, with lives lived in the society of America's corporate and political elite. Any suggestion that they are religious fanatics or cultists, or whatever it is that Mormons are supposed to be by their detractors, is spurious.
Then there are the specifics of George's political career. He ran as a moderate choice for the GOP presidential nomination in 1968, and opposed the war in Vietnam. In fact, that campaign foundered partially because of his gaffe of using the word "brainwashed" to describe his experience visiting Vietnam in 1967, which enabled the hawks to pillory him with the party faithful. Later President Nixon made him HUD secretary, in which post he tried, unsuccessfully, to expand the federal housing program. This family history distinguishes the son from the hard-right fundamentalist crowd, mostly Southern, that is the usual faction of the GOP identified with religion. In fact many of those conservatives, Baptists and Southern Methodists, villify Mormons. Romney is "identified with religion" only because Mormon national candidates are unusual, not because he himself makes a big deal about it.
He does make a bit of a deal out of it, though, when he says he'd like to be for Mormons what JFK was for Catholics in 1960. This brings me back to the Sharpton flap (Rev. Al seems to be turning up in my posts a lot for some reason). I don't think it's fair to jump on a black leader for criticizing the Mormon Church. I understand that today's Mormons aren't a bunch of white supremacist racists, but churches have histories and these histories need to be discussed. People don't get baited as anti-Catholic bigots for questioning, say, the actions of the Vatican during WW II, or the church's history in Latin America, or its policies regarding women in the priesthood and otherwise. If Mitt Romney wants to be the Mormon JFK, a discussion of the Mormon Church's past is, in fact, a necessary part of that process.
It's a judgement call whether there is overtly racist material in early Mormon scripture. However, Mormons were forced to take racial (and racist) positions to deal with political problems during their westward migration in the nineteenth century. In the border state of Missouri the Mormon Church banned blacks to allay the fears of pro-slavery neighbors and allies; it was during this period that the "Curse of Ham" nonsense was cooked up to ban blacks from the church, later from the priesthood, and even from heaven. Later, tensions with native Americans in the far west reinforced white supremacist doctrine.
All very regrettable, but in the USA we don't live in the past. At least not that far back in the past. However, a more difficult fact is that it was not until 1978, less than thirty years ago, that a new "revelation" conveniently allowed blacks into the priesthood of this aggressively evangelizing church. This is the history that exercises critics like Rev. Sharpton. Jumping on him for hypocrisy won't cut it: I don't think Mormons are anything other than another type of Christian, but there will have to be a public discussion of the racist past of the church if Mormon politicians hope to thrive as national candidates.