Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and civil rights activist Al Sharpton traded angry, racially charged accusations yesterday, with Romney alleging that Sharpton had uttered “bigoted” comments about Mormonism.
On the campaign trail in Iowa, Romney was asked about Sharpton’s comment during a debate Monday that “those of us who believe in God” will defeat Romney. The former Massachusetts governor told reporters that such a comment “shows that bigotry still exists in some corners.”
Sharpton angrily denied Romney’s charge in a telephone interview yesterday, and he accused Romney of stoking a verbal war with him to gain support among conservatives.
Sharpton said his comments have been taken out of their original context — a debate about religion with journalist Christopher Hitchens, who Sharpton said had suggested that Mormonism once advocated segregation.
“Attacking me, not Hitchens, shows [Romney] is playing politics,” Sharpton said. “What is bigoted about asking . . . about a denomination based on racism?”
Sharpton called on Romney to address whether the Mormon Church ever supported segregation. “He needs to clarify the truth or non-truth of what I was presented,” Sharpton said.
Richard N. Ostling, co-author of “Mormon America,” said the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the church is formally known, never officially sanctioned segregation. But until 1978, he said, the church barred any male with “African blood” from being a “priest,” a designation given to males over the age of 12.
“That pertains to not only holding church office but performing very routine functions and has afterlife implications,” Ostling said. “That teaching goes back at least to 1849.”
The back-and-forth highlights Romney’s sensitivity on issues relating to his faith. If elected, he would become the first Mormon president, which he plays down on the campaign trail.
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said Sharpton owes Romney an apology “for the initial attack.” He added: “We are simply responding to a gratuitous attack from Reverend Sharpton. It’s sad that he would continue to target any fellow American on the issue of faith.”
Romney has praised his church’s decision to “ordain African Americans,” Madden said. “He has spoken very sincerely about how great a day he thought that was. He is somebody who is absolutely against discrimination.”
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