09/27/2007 11:43 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mormons and The Media: Warren Jeffs vs. Mitt Romney

This is a tale of two Mormons.

One is a criminal creep, and the other is the richest 2008 Republican presidential prospect, worth $200 million or more. Probably half a billion given the anemic requirements on reporting candidate wealth.

We didn't examine the fountain of George W. Bush's wisdom nearly enough in 2000, and we've paid dearly for his half-baked biblical reading of the world. We preferred having a beer with him at a backyard barbecue instead of Gore, remember?

That was the extent of our collective analytical reach, sadly, and the pros hired to do Bush's slick TV ads sold him to fit that meme.

Enough inanity, already. Things have changed horribly after eight years. It's a must that we look critically at those who agree with Bush's actions and seek to assume his posture.

No offense is meant by broaching religion, but it matters, obviously, and can't be ignored. We'll start with press coverage of the creep.

Warren Jeffs has just been convicted of being an accomplice to rape. It's about time.

As the modern leader and Prophet of the largest offshoot Mormon polygamist sect in America (the very similarly named "Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints," founded in the 1930s), he was finally charged -- after running from the law for years -- with forcing a 14 year old girl to marry one of his adult male followers against her will.

He's done it before, and worse. This was the best prosecutors could do since witnesses are rarely forthcoming in cults like this.

Unfortunately, the news has focused exclusively on underage polygamy. The media has devoted no effort to exploring Jeffs' history of preaching about racial separatism, or how his views on race were a formal part of "mainstream" Mormon orthodoxy until not long ago.

Sex sells, and thus the only thing CNN hypes, the only thing the general public knows about anything Mormon-related, is the salacious stuff. As with any religion, there is so much more.

For example, Mormons believe that God Almighty was once a flesh and blood mortal like us. Really, they do. And that Christ will reappear on earth in both Jerusalem and Missouri. Yes, Missouri, home of the Mizzou Tigers! But that's for a different blog entry....

In dusty west Texas, outside the small town of Eldorado, the followers of Jeffs (estimated at 10,000) have built a large compound on 2,000 guarded acres purchased a few years ago. Think Waco's David Koresh and the Branch Davidians on steroids.

Unlike the town of Colorado City, Arizona, which Jeffs' group (and other polygamists) founded and have controlled for literally a hundred years, the Eldorado outpost hasn't had generations to flood the gene pool with elected officials, judges, police and media, not to mention the public schools. Blessedly, the local newspaper in Texas, The Eldorado Success, has the independence to post audio clips of his racist rants.

According to Jeffs:

The Negro race, which he calls the "seed of Cain," survived the flood of Noah because Noah's son Ham was married to "a wife of that seed" which he identified as being black. Jeffs claims it was necessary for the black race to be preserved "because it was necessary that the Devil should have a representation upon the Earth as well as God."

Jeffs also teaches us about rock and roll music. He says the Beatles were nothing until they learned at the feet of an unnamed homosexual black man who was a drug user, and then they became famous. Rock and roll music, he says, will

"rot the soul and lead the person to immorality, to corruption, to forget their prayers, to forget God. Thus the whole world has partaken of the spirit of the Negro race."

These sermons about race are ultimately more invidious than polygamy because they go largely unexamined. As constitutionally protected free speech, his words aren't illegal. Nor should they be, but his thousands of followers believe what he says. It's the Kool-Aid that gets guzzled, and such attitudes can spread like kudzu.

Since Jeffs' group is a Mormon offshoot, and since the definition of offshoot is "outgrowth: a natural consequence of development," it isn't unreasonable to wonder how deep-rooted his frightfully racist views are within the broader American Mormon movement.

The main "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints" officially abandoned polygamy in 1890 (to gain statehood for Utah), taking additional decades to fully disown large and powerful polyamist sects in its midst.

Yet while the Mother Church ultimately moved past multiple marriage, she took much longer to abandon racial separatism, despite missionary work in Africa since the 19th Century and, more recently, Mexico.

The faith claims only 5.5 million U.S. adherents, few of them African-American. At the least, this explains the dearth of decent jazz clubs in Salt Lake City.

Things may be slowly changing, but church history puts the problem in sharp relief.

Original Mormon doctrine glorified whites (known as Nephites) at the expense of those who were not white (Lamanites). The latter group included Africans, Asians with dark skin, Latinos, etc. Certain categories of Lamanites, like Native American Indians, were capable of becoming Nephites by sufficiently embracing Mormon culture.

This screwy stuff was originally detailed in writings by Joseph Smith, such as "The Book of Mormon." Smith, of course, invented the faith out of whole cloth in the 1820's while on the lam. He settled in Missouri, which explains the Jesus-returning-to-Missouri-and-Jerusalem-simultaneously thing. After his death, the members began a move out West in 1847. Smith's successor, Brigham Young, then instituted severe racial restrictions that remained in place for the next 130 years.

Indeed, African-American men were barred from being ordained into the church's all-male lay priesthood until 1978, when a "revelation" from God to the Mormon president finally ended that policy.

None of this is ad hominem religion-bashing; it's merely the historic record, the gospel truth. Besides, most religions have wacky ideas that are accepted by the flock. That's why we call it "faith." Hopefully they see the light over time regarding their worst tendencies, and the Mormon church no doubt has honorable people lining its pews. All religions do.

But choosing a president (or a foreign policy) isn't about magical thinking, it's about finding someone to wisely represent -- in the real world -- 300 million citizens of varying faiths or no faith, and the past is often prologue.

As the Boston Globe reported in June of 2007, Mormon leadership secured handsome White House hopeful Willard Mitt Romney a deferment from the military draft as a "minister of religion" in the 1960's to conduct "missionary work" in France, which lasted two and a half years.

This is how the vigorous Iraq War supporter Romney avoided Vietnam, and all five of his strapping sons later chose the same spiritual path in lieu of military service.

Missionary work, by definition, means attempting to recruit others into the faith. Just what were those proselytizing "talking points" for the non-converted, and how passionately did Mitt believe the church doctrine he preached while toiling in the wine vineyards?

It should be noted that Romney isn't comparable to some "drive-by" Episcopalian who attends services twice a year with the wife and kids. He served as bishop, or lay pastor, of his church in Belmont, Mass. for three years, and then served nine years as "stake" president, overseeing a dozen Boston-area parishes, according to The Christian Science Monitor. He's sincerely devout, and has been his entire life.

Let's be clear: Romney's church outlawed polygamy over a century ago, the federal government before that. I couldn't care less what consenting adults do in their personal lives, and I've never heard Mitt address his religion's racist past. Still, Warren Jeffs and his happy gaggle don't exist in a vacuum and weren't created in a Petri dish.

It seems to me a study of Mormon teachings and philosophy is a worthwhile endeavor. This applies to other religions, too, especially as we measure the 2008 presidential field.

After all, most conservative politicians now wear religion on their sleeve as part of the campaign platform. It casts a pall on everything from the teaching of evolutionary biology to stem cell research to thoughts on biblical Armageddon in the Middle East.

Their theological outlook can truly impact each of us.

Think of how we've changed in less than five short decades: when JFK ran for president in 1960, protestant America's fear of Europeans forced him to famously convince the voters that he wouldn't be beholden to the Pope in Rome on matters of public policy.

Today, on the other hand, Republican candidates can't be beholden enough to their faith. That's a sea change (Rudy Giuliani's moral relativism notwithstanding).

It's also a change of their own choosing, because Americans strongly disagreed with Republican behavior in the Terri Schiavo affair. These wannabes are running for president, not pastor.

The Constitution has no religious litmus test for public office, thank God. This doesn't mean, however, that the voting public shouldn't consider how a politician's deeply ingrained fealty to a particular faith might impact on-the-job decisions.

It's called doing "due diligence," and it's a responsibility that comes with living in a democracy.

The religious beliefs of our would-be elected leaders strike me as a fair area of inquiry, open to exploration, free of fearmongering. Another mistake is simply unaffordable.