Romney’s Other Mormon Problem

Posted: Oct 07, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

Rabbi Boteach was planning to visit Salt Lake City (he lives in New Jersey) that following week for previously scheduled business meetings with executives at Bonneville International, the company which owns KUTR-AM.  (Bonneville is entirely owned by the Mormon Church.)  But on Saturday—one day before he was scheduled to fly out and one day after the broadcast where he organized the gathering—KUTR Program Director Rod Arquette left Rabbi Boteach a series of frantic voice mails to inform him that he would not be coming to Utah.

When Rabbi Boteach finally talked with Arquette on Sunday, September 11, he learned that his show was being canceled—immediately.  Arquette also tried to cancel Rabbi Boteach’s plane ticket out to Utah, but the host had booked the travel himself.

While in one breath expressing great admiration for ordinary Mormons, Rabbi Boteach is convinced that Bonneville fired him for “plain bigotry.”  The station, of course, doesn’t see it that way.  It claims the show was canceled for “insubordination,” to which Rabbi Boteach retorts, “Are they serious?  I was fired because I took initiative to help victims of one of the worst natural disasters of our time?”

Despite the station’s efforts to stop it, the event went ahead as scheduled—and was attended by both the mayor and the Lt. Governor.  Rabbi Boteach estimates that there were roughly 50 evacuees and 200 local residents who came together in a bid to help black former residents of New Orleans resettle in lily-white Utah.  And those numbers likely would have been much higher had the event been promoted beyond that one show.

As Rabbi Boteach enthusiastically notes, Bonneville’s actions stand in sharp contrast to the efforts of the local Mormon community.

How does this tie back to Romney, should he decide to run for the White House?  Democrats in a general election would almost certainly hound a candidate Romney on old Mormon theology and church doctrine.  Additionally, Romney would find himself attached to the firing of Rabbi Boteach—as well as anything else that could be interpreted as bigotry by the Mormon Church, fairly or unfairly.

To those who think such attacks would be rejected as unfair, remember that the NAACP had much less to go on when they broadcast that reprehensible ad featuring the daughter of James Byrd (“it was like my father was killed all over again”), to great effect. 

Imagine what Democrats could do with the actions of a church to which Romney proudly belongs, and about which most Americans know little.