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"Even at this day it’s emotional," Romney said, "and so it’s very deep and fundamental in my life and my most core beliefs that all people are children of God."
Pressed by Russert, Romney refused to say his church was wrong to restrict blacks from full participation.
Romney’s forebears were among the original Mormon converts in the 1830s, and Romney himself was a bishop in the church before he entered politics in 1994.
"For men like Romney," Smith said, "lifelong church members whose people were pioneers in the faith, to criticize church authority would be akin to heresy."
Romney’s father, George Romney, also faced criticism over the priesthood ban when he ran for president in 1968. He answered by extolling his civil rights record as governor of Michigan.
George Romney, like his son, refused to publicly criticize his church.
"The issue hurt him and it hurt the image of Mormon church," said Newell Bringhurst, a historian and co-author of The Mormon Quest for the Presidency.
It may mar Mitt Romney’s campaign too, Bringhurst said. "He’ll face more and more scrutiny on the Mormon-black issue, even though the church has abandoned the policy."
Smith was more blunt. "The church has never done its due diligence, and guess what? Mitt Romney is taking hell for it. ... We just got that one wrong."
Purdy said LDS leaders began seeking divine guidance about the black ban in the 1970s. In 1978, he said, "a revelation to the church’s prophet extended the blessings of the priesthood to all worthy members."
"It was a day of great rejoicing in the church," Purdy said.
But the 1978 statement did not address the theological background behind the ban.
In 1949, the LDS Church’s First Presidency — the top tier of its hierarchy — had said the priesthood ban was a "direct commandment from the Lord." And some LDS leaders regarded as prophets taught that black skin was punishment for souls that lacked valor in a pre-earthly existence.
"Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications," Purdy said. "These previous personal statements do not represent church doctrine."
But even prophets’ personal statements sometimes are taken as holy writ, and theories about blacks being cursed or spiritually lacking circulated among Mormons well after the ban was lifted.
Even under intense pressure from black Mormons, the church has refused to formally repudiate past interpretations of doctrine or scripture that tie spiritual worthiness to race.
"If the LDS Church were to apologize, that would be casting aspersions on God’s prophets — the voice of God on Earth," said Richard Ostling, co-author of the book Mormon America. "I don’t think the Mormon soul could countenance it."
Perkins agreed that acknowledging prophets had erred would be "faith shattering" for many Mormons.
After converting to Mormonism, he began counseling fellow black Mormons and producing videos on race in church scripture. Perkins believes he is doing his part to help the church overcome its racist reputation.
But his work alone cannot overcome blacks’ deep-seated and widespread suspicions about Mormonism, Perkins said.
"The church is going to have to make it happen by confessing that its racial teachings were wrong," he said, "that we’re a church of continuing revelation and we just got that one wrong.
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