Religious controversies continue to rile the 2012 presidential campaign. One of the most recent concerns The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its past ban on blacks receiving the Church's priesthood. This role is ordinarily open to all Mormon men, so the racial restriction prevented blacks from full participation in the Church.
The ban ended in 1978, but the topic could still be incendiary in 2012, if Mitt Romney becomes the Republican presidential nominee. The contest for the White House would then involve the first Mormon to win a major-party nomination challenging the first African-American president. Critics of Mormonism could well attack the LDS Church's racially-exclusionary past, while its defenders could charge prejudice against the racially-inclusive contemporary LDS Church.
The current controversy was sparked when the Washington Post published statements attributed to Randy Bott, a professor at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, repeating a "folk doctrine" that was once offered to explain the ban, but was not an official doctrine of the LDS Church.
In a nutshell, the folk doctrine alleged that blacks were "cursed" by choices made in a pre-mortal confrontation, known among Mormons as the "war in heaven." We note that while the specifics vary, other Christian traditions have also had theological explanations for differences based on race.
The Washington Post article provoked a strong reaction in Mormon circles. The LDS Church issued an official statement declaring that such views "absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines" of the Church, and then went on to say, "we believe all people are God's children and are equal in His eyes and in the Church. We do not tolerate racism in any form." The president of Genesis, a support group for black Mormons, labeled the folk doctrine "vile," while numerous blog posts and op-ed pieces similarly denounced them.
But what do rank-and-file Mormons actually believe? Does the folk doctrine on race hold any sway? Or do most Mormons agree with its repudiation?
A few weeks before this controversy flared up, we surveyed a nationally representative sample of American Mormons, and happened to ask about this very folk doctrine.
Adopting Mormon religious language, our question read: "In the past, some Mormons have said that blacks had to wait to hold the priesthood because they were less valiant in the war in heaven, or the pre-mortal existence. Have you ever heard this?" Those who had heard of the statement were then asked whether they agree or disagree.
Less than half of all Mormons, 45 percent, report having heard this teaching. When we combine awareness and agreement, just 9 percent of all Mormons have both heard of, and agree with, the folk doctrine (just 2 percent strongly agree).
In other words, over 90 percent of Mormons have either never heard the folk doctrine or, if they have, reject it.
Awareness of the folk doctrine is related to involvement in Mormon culture and practices. Sixty percent of Mormons who have been church members all their lives and have done full-time missionary service have heard of the doctrine. However, greater awareness of the folk doctrine does not increase agreement with it. We suspect that awareness reflects exposure to both speculation on the topic inside, and criticism from outside, the LDS Church.
Young Mormons are slightly less likely to be aware of this folk doctrine, but much more likely to disagree with it if they have. Among Mormons born since the priesthood ban ended in 1978 (under 35 years of age), just 40 percent have heard of it but only 5 percent are both aware and agree (merely 1 percent strongly agree). Looking forward, it is likely that this folk doctrine will literally die off due to generational change.
Mormon beliefs about race are not what they used to be. Mormons who accept this folk doctrine about their church's past history with race are rare and dwindling. News stories that quote backwards views to imply otherwise are misleading. Rather than a cause for concern, Mormon racial attitudes provide reason for optimism. Old times, it appears, may be soon forgotten.
David E. Campbell, John C. Green and J. Quin Monson teach political science at, respectively, Notre Dame, the University of Akron and Brigham Young University. The views expressed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of their respective institutions.