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Mitt the Barber and the Church

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A great devotee of the Gospel of Getting On.
G.B. Shaw
, Mrs. Warren's Profession

I hope he remembers them. The explanations, that is. They could be handy if anyone ever asks him about his days as a missionary. Of course it's possible that no one will since everyone is reluctant to bring religion into what is an otherwise very civilized campaign for the presidency. Nonetheless, the answers he recently gave may prove handy if anyone ever does.

The answers to which I refer are the ones he gave when asked about his assault on John Lauber, a boy who had bleached-blond hair draped over one eye. A friend recalled Mitt saying: "He can't look like that. That's wrong. Just look at him." And with those words, Mitt the Barber and a group of friends gave a haircut to John Lauber, who, according to participants, was distressed at the assault and cried and screamed for help, to no avail. When asked about it on Fox news, Mitt said he "did not recall the incident." Philip Maxwell, a Michigan lawyer, who participated, was astonished that Mitt had forgotten saying, "I would think this would be seared in his memory. Certainly for the other people that were involved, nobody has forgotten."

I am not surprised that Mitt does not remember the Lauber incident since, as his classmates have pointed out, it was only one of a number of teenage pranks that amused Mitt, if not his victims. It would be more interesting, however, to engage Mitt in a theological discussion and explanation of his feelings about spreading the word of the Mormon religion in foreign lands when the official doctrine of that church considered people of black skin to be inferior beings.

Mitt went to France in 1966 as a Mormon missionary. He served there for 30 months. While working as a missionary he rose at 6 a.m. each day and rang doorbells from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., hoping to convert the residents to the Mormon faith. While going door to door, one of the things he might have been called upon to explain was why people with black skin were not as welcome in the Mormon Church as people with white skin. For almost a century before Mitt became a missionary, black people of African lineage could not join the Mormon priesthood. Brigham Young announced in 1852 in a speech to the Utah Territorial Legislature that: "Any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] ... in him cannot hold the Priesthood and ... I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ I know it is true and others know it." This official treatment of the black as inferior to the white was church doctrine throughout the time Mitt was propagating its faith and until 1978. During that time not only could male persons of black African ancestry not hold the priesthood, but they could not participate in some temple ordinances nor in celestial marriage.

It is commonly accepted that attacks on people's religions is not fair game and that in a campaign for the presidency discussion of the candidate's faith should be kept off the front burner and talked about only in hushed tones. Thus, it was accepted by most commentators (except right-wing-nut Fox equivalents) that if John Kennedy became president, the pope in Rome would not be dictating foreign policy. And this column is not to suggest that if Mitt were to become president, the people in secret temples in Salt Lake City would exert control over his actions. It is simply to assume that having so easily put aside his assault on John Lauber, he can with equal facility explain what he said to folks in France when he was knocking on their doors trumpeting the virtues of the Mormon faith, thus reassuring us all.

When, in 1978, Spencer W. Kimball, the president of the church, announced that he had had a revelation from God saying that every faithful and worthy man in the church "may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color," Mitt heard the news over his car radio. He said he pulled over and cried because he was so happy. However, he did not protest the policy prior to the revelation to Mr. Kimball. As he explained: "The way things are achieved in my church, as I believe in other great faiths, is through inspiration from God and not through protests and letters to the editor." Mitt participated in civil rights marches with his father and professed concern for civil rights. How he could encourage people to join a church one of whose most significant tenets ran counter to what he believed is hard to understand. Unless, of course, he simply flip-flopped. Or, perhaps, he doesn't remember what the church believed when he was a missionary and just considers that bigoted belief an "incident." He has to consider himself lucky that the Lord saw fit to give Mr. Kimball a revelation back in 1978. Had He waited until 2012 it would almost certainly ruin Mitt's chance to become president. As it is, it simply leaves one wondering what Mitt really believed back when he was a missionary.

Christopher Brauchli can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu. For political commentary see his web page at http://humanraceandothersports.com