Speaking recently to the prestigious Monday Meeting in Manhattan, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wowed the overflow conservative crowd with his charm and made many there come away feeling that he could be a credible candidate for the White House in ‘08. But what no one in the room addressed, yet of which everyone was aware—surely no one more acutely than the main attraction himself—was the Mormon issue.
Yet as much as the obstacles posed by Romney’s religion have been discussed in the media—that evangelical GOP primary voters in the South would be reluctant to support a Mormon—no one in the Manhattan audience was aware of an incident that happened just 24 hours earlier that will serve as a reminder that there’s another huge potential problem looming for the would-be White House seeker: race.
The Mormon Church has what can only be generously described as a tortured history on race. Anyone of African descent was banned from the priesthood until 1978—some 14 years after the passage of the first major Civil Rights Act. But it goes much deeper than that.
Younger Mormons who have been working to change their church, including through outreach to blacks and Hispanics, will acknowledge in private conversation that many in the old guard, particularly in Salt Lake City, still are of a mindset stuck in the past.
Though many Mormons would surely dispute that, what transpired in Salt Lake City recently is difficult to interpret in a way favorable to the actions of a church-owned company.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach recently had one of those broadcasts that most talk show hosts only dream of. A black New Orleans evacuee was a call-in guest on his Salt Lake City program and expressed discomfort staying in 99% white, mostly Mormon Utah, saying he felt unwanted.
Rabbi Boteach assured his guest that he had Mormons pegged wrong, that they were great people. The host then asked a question that caught the caller off-guard: if there were people who could help him, would he consider staying permanently in Salt Lake City? The caller responded that he would.
Then the calls began. As Rabbi Boteach tells it, Salt Lake City residents came forward in droves to offer help to any New Orleans evacuees looking to resettle in their picturesque area. On the spot, the host announced that there would be a gathering the following week to bring together local residents and evacuees.
Joel Mowbray, who got his start with Townhall.com, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.
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