Mitt Romney made no secret of his irritation at a Wisconsin campaign stop last week, where a Ron Paul supporter baited him with an ostensibly racist verse of Mormon scripture.
“I’m sorry," Romney said, cutting off the rally-crasher mid-spiel. "We’re just not going to have a discussion about religion in my view, but if you have a question, I’ll be happy to answer your question."
When the question arrived — "Do you believe it's a sin for a white man to marry and procreate with a black?" — the candidate's curt reply said everything about his public approach to his faith's complicated racial record.
"No," he responded, sharply. "Next question."
Through his long presidential campaign, Romney has managed to maneuver his way around one of the most difficult questions in the history of Mormonism: The church’s systematic discrimination against African-Americans, who were barred from the priesthood until 1978. But as the political landscape shifts in the coming weeks to pit the first Mormon nominee directly against the nation’s first black president, a new set of voices — black intellectuals and religious leaders, in particular — are beginning to demand that Romney address a subject that’s rarely far from the surface of modern American politics: race.
"I think what you'll find folks on the left doing is saying, 'Look at this, look at the Mormon faith, this is what they used to believe while Mitt Romney was practicing!'" said David Wilson, founding editor African-American news site The Grio. "A lot of folks are going to want answers."
Other prominent African-American figures say they see nothing out-of-bounds in questioning the details of Romney’s views on his faith's racial record. Marc Lamont Hill, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and frequent cable news commentator, said he "absolutely" plans to press Romney on the subject.
"I want to hear him talk about this," said Hill. "I won't be disingenuous about it. I'm not going to pretend that I believe Mitt Romney is a closet racist... but he needs to contextualize this for us."
The context is complicated. Despite Mormonism's early abolitionist roots, black men were not allowed to participate in the priesthood for much of the faith's history. The church lifted the ban in 1978, but folk doctrines linger — spurred on by old teachings like the one Romney was challenged with last week. Certain passages of Mormon scripture indicate that dark skin is a "curse" from an angry God, and some church leaders used to teach that blacks were less righteous in the pre-mortal life.
The modern LDS church has aggressively distanced itself from such teachings, and a recent survey found that only 9 percent of modern Mormons believe them. In fact, the church recently took the unusual step of condemning a BYU religion professor for voicing some of the dogmatic teachings during an interview with the Washington Post.
Romney was over 30 by the time church leaders in Salt Lake City dropped the ban on black priesthood-holders, but he had been raised by parents who bucked their own party to crusade for civil rights. In a 2007 appearance on Meet the Press, Romney got choked up while recounting the moment he first heard that his church had changed its anti-black policy.
"I pulled over and literally wept," Romney said. "Even to this day, it's emotional."
But none of that may be enough to prevent the issue from gaining traction in the general election.
"We've all heard that story from Mitt Romney, but... people are going to call out the Republican nominee with very specific questions about what he believed when these things were being taught to him," Wilson said. "I think that's where it gets very dicey for him; once Romney has to get into the details of Mormon scripture."
For the Obama campaign, trying to turn Mitt's Mormonism against him would be something of a high-wire act, threatening to injure the incumbent should the strategy go awry. But as Democrats seek to galvanize an underwhelmed liberal base, associating racism with Romney — a bland moderate who often comes off as more hapless than villainous — could help boost election-day turnout.
Rev. O'Neal Dozier, a black conservative pastor at Worldwide Christian Center Church in Pompano Beach, Florida, has been an outspoken critic of Romney's "racist religion," and told BuzzFeed he knows many 2008 Obama voters in the black evangelical community whose support for the president is wavering. But once they learn about the racial history of Romney's faith, Dozier predicts they will "simply dance back toward Obama."
"Look, there are blacks that are undecided about whether they want to vote for Barack Obama again," said Dozier. "Having Mitt Romney as the nominee would just validate the stereotyping philosophy already in the hearts of many black people that the Republican Party is prejudiced."
Critics have dismissed Dozier's full-throated condemnation of Romney's faith as a political ploy to build support for Rick Santorum, whom he endorsed in the primary. But Dozier pledged to continue speaking out on the issue if Romney wins the nomination — even if it means giving Obama a second term to enact his "godless" policies.
"I believe, to be honest with you, that a Mitt Romney presidency would be worse politically, worse economically, worse socially, worse spiritually than Obama's," said Dozier.
Faith leaders like Dozier are more likely than elected Democrats to push the Mormon race issue on to the national stage. Just last week, DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz declared Romney’s faith off-limits for public debate; and the official Obama campaign has shown no signs of forfeiting the high road in order to attack its opponent's religion. But in the age of super-powered surrogacy, modern politics is studded with viral web videos, rogue preachers, and partisans on both sides spoiling for the next fight.
"Look at what the right was able to do successfully with Jeremiah Wright," said Wilson. "We knew every detail of [Obama's] relationship with him. We had people going through church bulletins. You're going to find a lot of people who are going to be doing a lot of digging on Romney. I'm sure they've already started."
MSNBC analyst and Miami Herald columnist Joy Ann Reid — a prominent voice on race issues in a crucial swing state — said Romney deserves to be challenged on his church's past.
"I think if he were a child when anti-black policies were in place, that would be different," said Reid. "But he was an adult, active in the ministry of his church, and it's fair to ask, if the media cares to — and they should — what he thought of those policies at the time. The question is very much legitimate."
Columbia’s Hill predicts that combined pressure from the left and the religious right will force Romney to give a major speech addressing the faith of his fathers — similar to the one he gave in 2007, "but far more direct" — in which he will proclaim his Christianity, and condemn dogmatic racism.
"It'll be a declaration of faith of sorts, a clear statement of what his church believes, but also coming to terms with what his church no longer believes," Hill said.
Meanwhile, Mormons are bracing for their faith's skeletons to be dragged out of the closet and displayed on the stump — and many of them view the strategy as deeply unfair. Chuck Warren, a Republican strategist and Latter-day Saint, said the electorate will shrug off any such efforts as “parlor tricks by bigots and closed-minded fools.”
“The majority of Americans are going to ignore such pathetic tactics and realize we're talking about America's future,” Warren said.
Some black leaders, too, bridle at subjecting Romney’s faith to the kind of bloodthirsty investigation that seared Obama’s. Cornel West, a Princeton professor and an early Obama booster who has since criticized the president from the left, dismissed the notion that Romney should have to answer for his church.
"Anti-Mormon prejudice is as evil as anti-black prejudice," West told BuzzFeed. "Let us judge brother Mitt Romney on his record and deeds."