Church Separation The Mormons still haven't settled their race problem.

The Wall Street Journal
Friday, December 21, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST

In an "Official Declaration" issued on June 8, 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints extended "priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members of the Church." The church announced that a "revelation had been received" by its then-president Spencer Kimball. Until then, Mormonism was a defiantly apartheid faith that denied blacks full participation based on doctrinal beliefs that whites are "pure" and "delightsome," while black-skinned people are "unrighteous," "despised" and "loathsome" descendants of the biblical Cain, who was cursed for killing Abel.

By 1978, the U.S. was more than a century removed from a civil war over the status of blacks; W.E.B Du Bois and Henry Moskowitz had co-founded the NAACP; and President Truman had integrated the military three decades before.

By 1978, Plessy v. Ferguson had been overturned by Brown v. Board of Education, and Thurgood Marshall was a Supreme Court justice.

By 1978, Jackie Robinson had not only retired from the Brooklyn Dodgers but was fielding grounders in the hereafter.

By 1978, Martin Luther King Jr. had given his "I Have a Dream" speech, and Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

By 1978, the universities of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama had been integrated.

By 1978, Strom Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948 calling for "segregation of the races," had endorsed integration and hired black staffers.

Which is to say that in a decades-long march toward civil rights that eventually included even the likes of former Dixiecrats, the LDS church was still bringing up the rear.

It's true that, in the late 1970s, other religious denominations in the U.S. still tended to be largely segregated by race out of choice or custom. But according to journalists Richard and Joan Ostling's "Mormon America," only the Mormons "had instituted such a sharp racial preference or placed it at the level of divine revelation."

Armand Mauss, a leading scholar on Mormons and race, and a Mormon himself, has noted that "much of the conventional 'explanation' for the priesthood restriction was simply borrowed from the racist heritage of nineteenth-century Europe and America, especially from the justifications for slavery used in the ante-bellum South."

The priesthood proscription, which operated under a "one-drop rule," wasn't in place simply to keep blacks out of leadership posts. Ultimately, the ban was a manifestation of a central belief that blacks are unfit to be full members of the church on Earth, or to exist alongside whites in heaven.

In the Mormon system, "the priesthood is everything," write the Ostlings, and boys normally enter the first stage at age 12. "Without priesthood, many routine forms of church participation are beyond reach, such as distribution of the sacrament," write the authors. "Priesthood is the necessary condition for men receiving temple endowments and eternal sealings of marriage that admit its holders to the highest tier in heaven and potential godhood."

Mormon leaders were applauded for finally ending the prohibition. But according to Mr. Mauss, the church has never repudiated the teachings that supported the policy. In 2004, he wrote, "ironically, the doctrinal folklore that many of us thought had been discredited, or at least made moot, through the 1978 revelation, continued to appear . . . [in church literature] written well after 1978 and continues to be taught by well-meaning teachers and leaders in the church to this very day." And "Mormon America," which was just re-released, notes plainly that "Mormon teaching against race-mixing remains in force."

In 1978, Mitt Romney was a 31-year-old vice president at Bain & Co. and a lifelong devout Mormon. Throughout his current campaign for the Republican nomination, Mr. Romney has declined to distance himself from the repugnant racial teachings of his church.

On "Meet the Press" last Sunday, the candidate was asked by Tim Russert if "it was wrong for your faith to exclude [blacks] as long as it did." Mr. Romney dodged the question, instead stating: "I told you where I stand. My view is that there--there's, there's no discrimination in the eyes of God, and I could not have been more pleased to see the change that occurred."

In his ballyhooed speech earlier this month, Mr. Romney said he wouldn't renounce any of Mormonism's precepts. He also implied that questions like Mr. Russert's come too close to a "religious test" for public office that the Constitution explicitly forbids. But in a country with America's racial past, Mr. Russert's question isn't a religious test. It's due diligence. And for all his claims to the contrary, Mr. Romney has, in fact, been willing to distance himself from past teachings of the church--just not those having to do with its treatment of black people.

"Look, the polygamy, which was outlawed in our church in the 1800s, that's troubling to me," he told "60 Minutes" in May. "I must admit, I can't imagine anything more awful than polygamy." Gee, I can.

Mr. Riley is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.