During the 2012 Republican primaries, the Huffington Post reported on the topic of race and Mormonism while Mitt Romney campaigned for president. This particular excerpt sums up a paradox many in the faith may struggle with:
“I think for many Latter-day Saints, being in most respects modern Americans, the tension between loyalty to past church leaders and revulsion toward racism feels insoluble. They feel damned if they do and damned if they don’t: they can either doubt the integrity of their spiritual leaders or be accused of racism. Forced to choose, many of them commit to their church and hope that their own lives make clear that they are not personally racist.
I suspect that most LDS would be delighted to reject their history of racial exclusion if there were only a way to do so that would not threaten their beliefs about prophetic reliability. This tension has immediate relevance for contemporary Mormons in the midst of current culture wars. Modern Mormons are currently being asked by their leaders to adhere to a particular view of gender, particularly as it applies to female leadership and heterosexual marriage norms. If earlier LDS leaders were simply wrong about race, what keeps them from being wrong about gender? Though Mormonism contains a variety of ideas about the significance of gender, in both theory and practice, for many the question of prior racial exclusion feels relevant to current debates about sexual identity.”
As far as gender and or issues of homosexuality, see this article. A comprehensive discussion on the race issue might be better reserved for another book or in an updated version of ‘Day of Defense. Brigham Young is credited with some remarks unbecoming of a Christian leader, but he was a man of his times. For more on the life and times of one the forgotten Black Mormons, Elijah Abel, I recommend W. Kesler Jackson’s book. You can also find the article on Race by the Church in the Further Reading section.
For interested readers, I found this letter that Joseph Smith wrote to his friend Oliver Cowdery enlightening on the touch subject of slavery and race: http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/letter-to-oliver-cowdery-circa-april-1836
To sum up the letter, Joseph Smith considered sending missionaries into the American South in 1836. With the intention of not stirring up violence between slaves and their masters, Smith relied on New Testament teachings to best approach the slave question. The idea was first to convert the masters and then the slaves. Throughout the letter is the acknowledgment that slaveholders should consider themselves accountable before the judgment bar of God.
[Update: Since I first posted this, I’ve since written about Brigham Young and a quote by him that is shared often by critics of the Church. I’ve also written on the question of whether the Book of Mormon is racist or not.]