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African-American Christians waver over vote

By Rachel Zoll

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Sept. 16 2012 7:40 a.m. MDT

African-Americans generally still view the church as racist. When LDS leaders lifted the ban on blacks in the priesthood in 1978, church authorities never said why. The Mormon community has grown more diverse, and the church has repeatedly condemned racism. However, while most Christian denominations have publicly repented for past discrimination, Latter-day Saints never formally apologized.

Bernard is among the traditional Christians who voted for Obama in 2008 and are now undecided because of the president's support for gay marriage. But Bernard is also troubled by Romney's faith.

"To say you have a value for human life and exclude African-American human life, that's problematic," Bernard said, about the priesthood ban. "How can I judge the degree to which candidate Romney is going to allow his Mormonism to influence his policies? I don't know. I can't."

Romney said in a 2007 speech that LDS authorities would have no influence on his policies as president. He also said he wept when he learned that the priesthood ban had been abolished because he was anxious for it to be lifted. But that has done little to change perceptions among African-Americans and others.

"Obama was supposed to answer for the things that Rev. Wright said," said the Rev. Floyd James of the Greater Rock Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago, at a recent meeting of the historically black National Baptist Convention. "Yet here's a guy (Romney) who was a leader in his own church that has that kind of history, and he isn't held to some kind of account? I have a problem with that."

Obama broke in 2008 with his longtime Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright, after videos of his incendiary sermons were broadcast.

Many Democrats and Republicans have argued that Romney's faith should be off limits. The Rev. Derrick Harkins, faith outreach director for the Democratic National Committee, travels around the country speaking to African-American pastors and other clergy. He said concerns over gay marriage have receded as other issues take precedence, and no pastors have raised Mormonism in their conversations with him about the two candidates.

"There's just no space in this campaign for casting aspersions on anyone's faith," Harkins said in a phone interview. "It's not morally upright. It's not ethically appropriate."

The Rev. Howard-John Wesley, who leads the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., said he is telling his congregants, "Let's not make the election a decision about someone's salvation." Last spring, when it became clear that Romney would be the GOP nominee, congregants starting asking about Mormonism, so Wesley organized a class on the faith. He said congregants ultimately decided that "we could not put Mormons under the boundaries of orthodox Christianity."

But Wesley said, "I don't want Gov. Romney to have to defend the Mormon church, the way President Obama had to defend Jeremiah Wright." Wesley, whose congregation has more than 5,000 members, said he will be voting for Obama.

The Rev. Lin Hill, an associate pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Va., said in a phone interview that he plans to travel with other local pastors to about 50 congregations over two weeks to hold discussions and distribute voter guides that will include a contrast between historic Christianity and Mormonism, and educate congregants about the former priesthood ban.

Hill is active in his local Democratic Party but said he's acting independently of the campaign. He said Mormon theology becomes relevant when congregants argue that they can't vote for Obama because, as a Christian, he should have opposed gay marriage.

"If you're going to take a tenet of a religion and let that dissuade you from voting, then we have to," discuss Mormon doctrine, Hill said. "We want folks to have a balanced view of both parties, but we can't do that without the facts."

The Rev. Dwight McKissic, a prominent Southern Baptist and black preacher, describes himself as a political independent who didn't support Obama in 2008 because of his position on social issues. McKissic said Obama's support for same-gender marriage "betrayed the Bible and the black church." Around the same time, McKissic was researching Mormonism for a sermon and decided to propose a resolution to the annual Southern Baptist Convention that would have condemned Mormon "racist teachings."

McKissic's Mormon resolution failed.

On Election Day, McKissic said, "I plan to go fishing."

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Associated Press writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report.

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