Romney, Russert and Religion
Today’s Meet The Press Interview is now part of the public record, and predictably, Tim Russert dove into religion first. (Here’s the video clip of that portion of the interview, and here’s the transcript.)
One issue that got more attention than I think it has previously in the campaign was the former policy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “Church”) that denied the Church’s lay priesthood to African-American men. The exchange:
MR. RUSSERT: You, you raise the issue of color of skin. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court, Brown vs. Board of Education, desegregated all our public schools. In 1964 civil rights laws giving full equality to black Americans. And yet it wasn’t till 1978 that the Mormon church decided to allow blacks to participate fully. Here was the headlines in the papers in June of ’78. “Mormon Church Dissolves Black Bias. Citing new revelation from God, the president of the Mormon Church decreed for the first time black males could fully participate in church rites.” You were 31 years old, and your church was excluding blacks from full participation. Didn’t you think, “What am I doing part of an organization that is viewed by many as a racist organization?”
GOV. ROMNEY: I’m very proud of my faith, and it’s the faith of my fathers, and I certainly believe that it is a, a faith–well, it’s true and I love my faith. And I’m not going to distance myself in any way from my faith. But you can see what I believed and what my family believed by looking at, at our lives. My dad marched with Martin Luther King. My mm was a tireless crusader for civil rights. You may recall that my dad walked out of the Republican convention in 1964 in San Francisco in part because Barry Goldwater, in his speech, gave my dad the impression that he was someone who was going to be weak on civil rights. So my dad’s reputation, my mom’s and my own has always been one of reaching out to people and not discriminating based upon race or anything else. And so those are my fundamental core beliefs, and I was anxious to see a change in, in my church.
I can remember when, when I heard about the change being made. I was driving home from, I think, it was law school, but I was driving home, going through the Fresh Pond rotary in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I heard it on the radio, and I pulled over and, and literally wept. Even at this day it’s emotional, and so it’s very deep and fundamental in my, in my life and my most core beliefs that all people are children of God. My faith has always told me that. My faith has also always told me that, in the eyes of God, every individual was, was merited the, the fullest degree of happiness in the hereafter, and I, and I had no question in my mind that African-Americans and, and blacks generally, would have every right and every benefit in the hereafter that anyone else had and that God is no respecter of persons.
MR. RUSSERT: But it was wrong for your faith to exclude it for as long as it did.
GOV. ROMNEY: I’ve told you exactly where I stand. My view is that there–there’s, there’s no discrimination in the eyes of God, and I could not have been more pleased than to see the change that occurred.
If you want to try judging Romney’s sincerity on the racism issue, watch the video clip. (Shorter version here.) I won’t detail my own experience; suffice it to say that like many other adult members of the Church on June 1, 1978, when the change was announced, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news. It was like a thunderbolt, and I felt as though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Thanks to reader Jeff, here’s another account of the events leading up to that day, written by the man who is now President of the Church.
There is nothing new in the Meet the Press interview, except Russert’s follow-up on whether Romney believes the Church’s former policy was wrong. For reasons I’ll discuss below, it is very difficult for Romney to answer that question directly. This is a problem Romney cannot solve. The only question is whether his refusal to get into that level of doctrinal detail will hurt him politically. I doubt that it will. But let’s take a look at the politico-religious issue.
Byron York rightly points out today that candidates have long been asked about their past association with institutions that discriminate based on race. He sums up Romney’s problem:
. . . Romney is faced with the simple question: Was the church policy before 1978 wrong? This morning, he wouldn’t say, and it might be difficult for him, as a former church leader, to get out in front of the LDS leadership on that. And he certainly can’t cite McConkie’s advice to forget everything that was said before 1978. Given all that, it’s an issue that’s likely to pop up over and over again.
Romney’s position is painfully familiar to many, if not most Mormons who were adult members of the Church prior to the announcement on June 1, 1978. Most of us say essentially this:
We don’t know why the policy existed and we don’t know why it took so long to change, but we were terribly uncomfortable with the policy while it was in place and we are delighted and relieved that it is now in the past. Because we don’t know the answers to those two “why” questions, and because we believe the Church is guided by revelation, we can’t in good conscience say the policy was wrong. All we can say is we are grateful it is over. That’s not very satisfying spot to be in, but we accept it and move forward as faithful members of the Church.
At least that’s how I feel about the matter. I don’t know that voters who care about the Church’s former policy will have the patience to accept that response. I suspect there are not enough of those voters to make a difference, especially in light of the Romney family history on the issue. Mitt Romney himself has all but said that whatever the Church’s position used to be on the issue, his family’s behavior was in support of equal rights.
York is right that the issue will pop up over and over. Along the way, reporters will probably refer to this interview with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Church’s Quorum of Twelve Apostles. If you scroll down a ways you will find some interesting and, I think, candid comments about the Church’s former race-based policy.
By the way, on the Meet the Press website there are outtakes, called “Take Two,” from today’s interview, including excerpts here from George Romney’s interview on the show in 1964. The elder Romney was also asked about Mormonism, but the very benign nature of those long-ago questions is fascinating. (Hint: They’re about the gnarly issue of Sabbath observance.)
If you want to get to know Mitt Romney better, watch the Take Two portion. It is much more relaxed and provides some insight into the man.
K-Lo notes that today’s MTP session will fan the flames around the “Christian” question:
[A]s much as it pains me, I can’t help but think that there are some evangelicals who heard Romney talk about “Christians” who were seething that he won’t say “I am not a Christian.” I remember the first time it was explained to me at a Concerned Women for America conference that I am not a Christian because I am Catholic. At the time I wondered why we — my pro-life, conservative CWA friends and I — couldn’t just strengthen our political alliance on issues we agreed on and go our own ways Sunday morning (or whenever). I
hopepray Iowa conservatives get how important it is to have that alliance — to unite where we agree on the policy and political issues that are at the core of what the next president will face in office — and not splinter it for a guy who wants to be a “Christian leader” who has a whole host of the policy and political issues wrong.
We could not have said it better.
Update: John Hinderaker of Power Line is tired of all this and comments in a post entitled “Enough Already.”