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?” 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 Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee. Driessen believes that there is plenty in the Book of Mormon to support 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 Driessen, a constitutional lawyer. “That is my standard.”
Being black, liberal and Mormon, Driessen represents a small but emerging point of view that is in stark contrast to the traditional profile of Latter-day Saints: conservative, Republican and white.
While many within the church community are rooting for 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 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 6 million Mormons in the U.S.
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 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 USA that we have a Mormon candidate and black candidate,” said Catherine Spruill, who is mixed-race like Obama and Mormon like 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 4th District, which includes part of Salt Lake County. A campaign video describes her in these terms, among others: “mother, mayor, leader, gun owner.”
With the larger tent has come a more diverse array of political ideologies and expressions in a church culture that has been known for its strict hierarchy and members’ adherence to authority and rules, for instance the prohibitions on caffeine and alcohol. Of more than a dozen black Mormons interviewed for this article across the country, eight were Democratic-leaning Obama supporters, two were undecided, and two others said they were committed to voting for Romney.
“With respect to Romney being a Mormon, bless his heart,” said Tracie J. Walker, 48, who lives in Washington. “I think he’s a strange character. He got confused by money, I think. So he doesn’t understand reality today.”
None of the black Mormons who spoke to a reporter said he or she would vote strictly based on race or religion, only conscience. Even after the president’s endorsement of same-sex marriages, invoking Christianity and the golden rule — “treat others the way you would want to be treated,” he said — Mormon supporters of Obama did not waver, saying they made a distinction between their own private religious beliefs and what they think is right for secular society.
“To my way of thinking the secular government has no business messing in these private affairs among individuals,” Driessen said. “What other people choose to do is not a problem for me, as long as it doesn’t harm me.”
Spruill, 31, said the decision did not matter to her, either, adding, “I applaud the president’s fortitude.”
Religion is always on her mind, however, and she particularly enjoys a certain political punch line that is making the rounds among some black Mormons here.
It goes like this: Obama calls Romney to say he thinks it is time the country had a Mormon president. But just as Romney is thanking the president for the apparent concession, Obama interrupts him to say, “My baptism is on Saturday.”
Undoubtedly, some black Mormons are still wrestling with the decision of whom to vote for.
“It’s tough because you’ve got the first black president, but he’s running against a candidate who has the values I believe in,” said Eddie Gist, 43, a black Mormon who lives in Salt Lake City. Gist said he may end up leaning more toward Romney, but added, “I really can’t go wrong either way.”
In 1971, the church founded the Genesis Group, a support organization for black Mormons in Salt Lake City. Today, it counts nearly 500 members, according to Don Harwell, the group’s president, who converted in 1983.
Harwell, who is black and originally from Los Angeles, said that church members kept politics out of Genesis activities and temple life, so he could not speak to their presidential preferences. As for himself, he is a registered Republican.
Harwell and his wife, Jerri Harwell, a professor who supports Obama, are frequent political sparring partners on everything from the national debt to whether the president helped or hurt the economy.
“I’ve met Romney, I’ve talked to Romney, and I feel good about Romney,” he said over dinner one night last week with his wife in Salt Lake. “My biggest thing is getting somebody in there with integrity and business sense, and that’s what he brings.”
Harwell disagreed: “He hasn’t even worked in years.”
Asked whether she felt compelled to bend to peer pressure in conservative Utah, where religion and culture are so thoroughly intertwined, Harwell said no.
“The religion is very much a part of me, but I was born black and I will die black.”
Beyond that, she feels that Obama is the better candidate. “My problem with Romney, politically, is that he cannot relate to the common man,” she said. “I’m afraid of what would happen to the economy given his frame of reference.”
Paul Sleet, a black computer systems engineer and photographer in St. Louis, joined the Mormon church in 1989. He has five children, one of whom is serving as a missionary.
“Everything the church represents seems to be more clearly represented by Michelle and Barack Obama,” he said.
“I’m 100 percent Mormon and committed to my religion,” he said, “but I’ve never really thought about whether I’d have the same pride in a Mormon being elected president.
“I don’t know if I’d have the same tears in my eyes.”