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For some reason The New York Times has given the execrable Lee Siegel space to write on its website. Ruminating on Mitt Romney’s candidacy Siegel puts up a post with the title What’s Race Got to Do With It?, and states:

In this way, Mr. Romney’s Mormonism may end up being a critical advantage. Evangelicals might wring their hands over the prospect of a Mormon president, but there is no stronger bastion of pre-civil-rights-America whiteness than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Yes, since 1978 the church has allowed blacks to become priests. But Mormonism is still imagined by its adherents as a religion founded by whites, for whites, rooted in a millenarian vision of an America destined to fulfill a white God’s plans for earth.

There is something to this. The ancient leadership of the present day Mormon church grew up in a very different America, and they sometimes reflect that America in their pronouncements. For example, despite the fact that plenty of Mormons are in interracial marriages (I know this from my Facebook friends), there is still some literature floating around in the Mormon church discouraging the practice. Now, granted most Americans’ revealed preferences indicate that they aren’t too into interracial marriage personally, but the social norm is strongly against expressing disapproval in the abstract against the practice.

All that being said, one needs to be careful about overemphasizing the whiteness of Mormons. First, remember that most Mormon males are missionaries abroad at some point in their life, so it isn’t as if they are unfamiliar with societies where non-whites are the majority. And, it is probable that around half of Mormons in the world today are not white (the claims vary on this issue). But it is also notable that Mormons in the USA today are far less white than they were just a generation ago. To illustrate this point I’ve replicated some religious data from the Pew survey. I’ve highlighted in blue some historical mainline/liberal Protestant denominations, and in red some of their evangelical/conservative counterparts.


Denomination/Religion White Black Asian Other Latino N
Evangelical Lutheran 97 1 1 1 1 867
Nazarene 95 2 0 1 2 103
Lutheran, Missouri Synod 95 2 1 1 1 583
Jewish 95 1 0 2 3 671
United Methodist Church 93 2 1 2 2 2232
Episcopal 92 4 1 1 2 468
Presbyterian Church USA 91 4 2 1 2 542
United Church of Christ 91 4 0 4 1 246
Independent Baptist 91 0 1 4 3 905
Unitarian, etc. 88 2 2 5 4 291
Orthodox Christian 87 6 2 3 1 358
Latter-day Saints 87 2 1 3 7 547
Free Methodist 86 7 5 3 0 103
Presbyterian Church in in America 86 5 4 1 4 168
Atheist 86 3 4 2 5 499
Southern Baptist 85 8 1 3 2 2520
Agnostic 84 2 4 4 6 817
Church of God Cleveland 83 2 1 3 11 124
American Baptist 81 4 2 6 7 406
Disciplines of Christ 79 8 0 3 10 137
No Religion 79 5 4 4 8 1971
Church of Christ 76 13 2 3 6 561
Assemblies of God 72 2 2 6 19 477
Catholic 65 2 2 2 29 7393
Religious, no affiliation 60 16 2 5 17 1668
Buddhist 53 4 32 5 4 405
Jehovah’s Witness 48 22 0 5 24 212
Seventh-Day Adventist 43 21 5 4 27 134
Muslim 37 24 20 15 4 1030
Church of God Christ 11 71 1 4 13 158
Hindu 5 1 88 4 2 255
African Methodist Episcopal 1 93 0 5 1 125
National Baptist 0 98 0 0 2 549

Some of the results are not surprising. The Lutheran churches in America have become the ethnic religions of people whose ancestors immigrated from Germany or Scandinavia (and those who marry into these families, who are invariably white because white people have a strong revealed preference of marrying other white people). What is perhaps more interesting is that the list of very white American churches seems somewhat overloaded with liberal establishment denominations. Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. These movements have fewer blacks than the Southern Baptists, whose origins are rooted in part in the Southern system of racial segregation! When you compare liberal and conservative divisions of the same church (e.g., Evangelical vs. Missouri Synod Lutherans, United vs. Free Methodists, Presbyterian USA vs. America), there does seem to be a pattern where the proportion of whites is generally higher in the more liberal denomination.

Finally, let’s go back to the Mormon issue. Turns out that Mormons are about as white as Unitarians. This is not too surprising if you’ve ever been to a Unitarian church (I’ve been to several). Mormons are also as white as atheists or agnostics. This will not surprise. But what may surprise is that the denomination into which Barack Obama is baptized has a higher proportion of white members than the Latter-day Saints!

My main point with this post is that you should be careful of toting up numbers, and using that to buttress your position. Mormons in America are proportionally a white denomination. But they’re arguably no whiter than Unitarians, and far less white than Jews. The fact that Unitarians are just as white as Mormons does not imply that they are equivalent in racial sentiments and attitudes with Mormons. Mormonism’s “race problem” is a feature of its history, and a strain of its modern culture, which is independent from its contemporary demographics. Therefore, the demographics should be set to the aside. No one minds that Evangelical Lutherans are overwhelmingly white because there’s nothing about that religion which is particular racist. If there was, then perhaps one could focus on the demographics as a consequence, rather than a suspicious feature.

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Trying to Relish the Big Time, Even When It Brings a Cringe:

The house lights came up and it was intermission at “The Book of Mormon,” the new Broadway musical about a pair of innocent young Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda to spread the faith. John Dehlin, a graduate student who flew in from Utah to see the show with a group of Mormons from around the country, was still riveted to his theater seat, having flashbacks.

“It’s way, way too close to home,” he said, recalling his own missionary years in Guatemala: the shock at the poverty and violence, the pressure from the mission president to baptize more natives, the despair when his mission companion ran off with a local girl — and the Mormon mandate, above all, to repress doubt and remain relentlessly cheery.

A friend in the crowded theater aisle, Paul Jones, passed by and gave Mr. Dehlin a high-five and a hug. “It’s right on,” said Dr. Jones, a dentist from Gilbert, Ariz., “but I cringed a little bit, a couple of times.”

The arrival of a Broadway musical that ridicules their religion, produced by the creators of the scathingly satirical television show “South Park,” is proving to be a cringe-worthy moment for many Mormons.

And yet, even though the very name of the show appropriates the title of the church’s sacred scripture, there have been no pickets or boycotts, no outraged news releases by Mormon defenders and no lawsuits.

This is intentional. Mormons want people to know that they can take it.

Not all religious communities react in the same way. In Birmingham, England, 2004, Theatre attacks Sikh play protest:

But Mohan Singh, a local Sikh community leader, said: “When they’re doing a play about a Sikh priest raping somebody inside a gurdwara, would any religion take it?”

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols, said the play was offensive to people of all faiths.

“The right to freedom of expression has corresponding duties to the common good.

“Such a deliberate, even if fictional, violation of the sacred place of the Sikh religion demeans the sacred places of every religion.”

The theatre said more than 800 people had to be evacuated, security guards were attacked and thousands of pounds’ worth of damage was caused.

A foyer door was destroyed, windows were broken in a restaurant and demonstrators smashed equipment backstage.

There are many things you can criticize about the United States. But at least there is the possibility of doubt and nonconformity.

• Category: Science • Tags: Mormonism, Religion 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"