05/16/2012 02:14 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

African Americans Deserve an Explanation from Romney

When President Obama gave his full-throated support of marriage equality last week, Mitt Romney immediately responded with his full-throated opposition to same-sex marriage and civil unions. There could not be a more stark contrast between the two presidential candidates.

Some have suggested that the president's support of marriage equality may erode votes within his African-American base. That analysis is ridiculous upon its face. Mitt Romney has some explaining to do with African Americans; for example, why were black men of African descent not allowed to be priests in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) until 1978? That's not a typo; I wrote 1978.

Black men of African descent were prohibited from a whole host of basic LDS activities and rituals, which require achievement of the church's highest degree of salvation. One such ritual is having a marriage performed in the church. Indeed, black men were second-class worshipers. In 1849 church president Brigham Young said, "The Lord had cursed Cain's seed with blackness and prohibited them the priesthood." Later, in 1852, Young concluded, "Any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] ... in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no other prophet ever spoke it before, I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ, I know it is true and others know it." According to Young, the seed of Cain produced people with black skin and flat noses. So began 126 years of discrimination by the LDS church against black men and their families.

In 1964 both houses of Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law. The act ended formal discrimination against African Americans. Nevertheless, the Mormon church continued formally preventing black men from joining the priesthood for an additional 14 years, despite the fact that in this particular faith tradition, joining the priesthood is a basic achievement that most male members attain.

As a gay man and an African American, I have to wonder what Mitt Romney was doing to protest his church's discriminatory policy against black men in the 1970s. Did Romney simply accept the church's teaching, or did he fight against what was clearly a horribly discriminatory policy? If you believe what Romney says today, his faith is one of the reasons he is against same-sex marriage. Romney's faith also would have had him supporting discrimination against black men until 1978.

The LDS church still recommends "that people marry those who are of the same racial background generally, and of somewhat the same economic and social and educational background (some of those are not an absolute necessity, but preferred), and above all, the same religious background, without question." I think many African Americans will find this teaching racist at worst, and troubling at best. As the presidential campaign gets underway, African Americans are going to have some significant questions for Mitt Romney.

The LDS church discriminated against black men just like it is currently discriminating against gays and lesbians. Ironically, the Mormon church may just end up helping many African Americans make the connection between the two civil rights struggles and increase support for same-sex marriage in the African-American community. Talk about unintended consequences.