Reverend Al Sharpton was the perfect picture of geniality after dining with Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Mormon Church's governing board of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles in Salt Lake City. Sharpton's cordiality was his way of showing that he held no political ill will toward GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney.
Days earlier Sharpton had blurted out that those who believed in God would vote against Romney. His remark smacked of bigotry and intolerance, and even if Romney weren't his obvious target, the remark goes sharply against the grain of the anti-discrimination ideals that one of the nation's top civil rights leaders is supposed to stand for.
But Sharpton's initial blast at Romney had little to do with him and everything to do with his read of the Mormon Church's past blatant racial bigotry. That history is coming under closer and closer scrutiny as Romney nudges up the charts as a bona fide GOP presidential candidate. A couple of weeks before Sharpton went off on him, Jay Leno asked Romney on his late night TV show whether his administration would be inclusive. Romney shrugged it off with the stock reply that he opposed discrimination. That's hardly an illuminating answer.
For more than a century the Mormons clung tightly to their well-documented, race-tinged dogma that blacks were an inferior race, could not be priests, serve on missions or be married in the Temple. They repeatedly cited the Old Testament curse of Ham as a cover for their unabashed racial bigotry. Mormon church leaders didn't budge from making pronouncements about God's alleged curse against blacks even when other fundamentalist groups backpedaled at least publicly from using the Bible to justify racism. Sharpton may in fact have been moved to take his shot at the Mormons because he is a Pentecostal minister, and his church has at times been at odds with Mormonism. The Mormons finally backed away from their bar against blacks after church leaders claimed they got a revelation from God in 1978 that declared blacks were now equals.
That was a decade and a half after the great civil rights battles of the 1960s. The Mormon leaders claim that they have convincingly junked their racist past. They tout their much-publicized genealogical research on African-American families, their aggressive missions in Africa, and the handful of blacks that serve in the important church body known as the Quorum of the Seventy to prove it. Yet Mormon leaders have also have rejected calls for the church to apologize for its century plus defense of Biblical touted racism.
The closest they came was in 1998 when under pressure from influential African-American Mormons, the Mormon ruling council's The First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles debated whether to issue a "clarification" of the issue. It didn't happen. The council told reporters that they'd let the revelation speak for itself and quietly let the matter drop. That angered some black Mormons. They rightly insisted that while the church had reformed its teaching and practices, the stigma it put on blackness still stood, and that it had made no effort to educate it flock why that was wrong.
Mormon change efforts are certainly commendable. But Mormon leaders, in refusing to go any further than the "revelation" on race, stir strong suspicion that the attitudes of many rank and file Mormons toward race and gender issues are still frozen in time. The inherent social conservatism in the Mormon faith and practices further deepens the suspicion that if Romney is the GOP chosen one and actually beats a path to the White House he isn't likely to make diversity the watchword of his administration. He's even less likely to do what President Bush did and appoint a bevy of high profile African-Americans to top echelon positions.
His record as Massachusetts' governor is even less reassuring on diversity. In his last year in office, the Massachusetts Women's Bar Association pounded on him to appoint more minorities and women to the state bench. He did. But by then Romney had his eye firmly on a presidential bid. That put him in the national public spotlight, and his record on diversity would be closely scrutinized.
During his excursion to Morman headquarters in Salt Lake City, Sharpton said and did all the right things to show that he's ready and willing to make peace with the Mormon faith. But he did not apologize to Romney for his blast. Romney, for his part, chalked Sharpton's knock against him up to bigotry. Romney was right.
However, Sharpton's remark did re-focus attention on the Mormon's shameful past, a past that church leaders have not totally rebuked. While religion shouldn't be an issue in determining who's fit to sit in the White House, it is an issue if it blinds a president to the crucial need for diversity. The jury is way out on Romney on that issue.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.