Black Mormons and the Politics of Identity

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SALT LAKE CITY — When Marguerite Driessen, a professor here, entered Brigham Young University in the early 1980s, she was the first black person many Mormon students had ever met, and she spent a good bit of her college time debunking stereotypes about African-Americans. Then she converted to Mormonism herself, and went on to spend a good deal of her adult life correcting assumptions about Mormons.

So the matchup in this year’s presidential election comes as a watershed moment for her, symbolizing the hard-won acceptance of racial and religious minorities.

“A Mormon candidate and a black candidate? Who would have thunk?” Ms. Driessen said. “I think 30 years ago, we would not have had this choice.”

After examining the dual — and sometimes conflicting — identities, she has decided that she will cast her vote for President Obama over Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee. Ms. Driessen believes that there is plenty in the Book of Mormon to support Mr. Obama’s candidacy, and she likes to cite chapter and verse, like Mosiah 29:39 and 23:13.

“It says it is your job, people, to elect people who will protect your liberties,” said Ms. Driessen, a constitutional lawyer. “That is my standard.”

Being black, liberal and Mormon, Ms. Driessen represents a small but emerging point of view that is in stark contrast to the traditional profile of American Latter-day Saints, who tend to be conservative, Republican and white.

While many within the church community are rooting for Mr. Romney, the minority Mormon voices are becoming more assertive, perhaps because of the strength of their growing numbers. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has experienced explosive worldwide growth through its missionary work, particularly in countries with large black populations. In the United States, it is the second-fastest growing religion, according to a recently released decennial census of religions.

While the church does not track members by race, there are thriving Mormon churches with hundreds of black members today in many urban areas, including Washington, Chicago and New York, although African-Americans represent only a tiny fraction of the six million Mormons in the United States.

The conversion of blacks in this country has been a challenge, given the church’s turbulent history of excluding people of black African descent. Until 1978, black men were not allowed to become priests or bishops; dark skin was considered a biblical curse. During the 1960s, when Mitt Romney’s father, George, made civil rights a personal priority during his time as a Republican governor of Michigan, his progressive views put him at odds with church doctrine.

Over the last decades, however, there has been an aggressive campaign to diversify, and racism in the church — which was itself once powerless and persecuted as a cult — has been repeatedly denounced.

“I feel a definite sense of pride in the U.S.A. that we have a Mormon candidate and black candidate,” said Catherine Spruill, who is mixed-race like Mr. Obama and Mormon like Mr. Romney. “I feel pride for my people, because America picked that.”

There is even a black Mormon Congressional candidate, Mia Love, who will soon be on the ballot in Utah. She is running as a conservative for the newly created Fourth District, which includes part of Salt Lake County. A campaign video describes her in these terms, among others: “mother, mayor, leader, gun owner.”

Read the rest of this story on the nytimes.com

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