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Health

Is Barack H. Obama whiter than Mitt Romney?

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJanuary 17, 2012 1:09 PM

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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.

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.

Denomination/ReligionWhiteBlackAsianOtherLatinoN

Evangelical Lutheran971111867

Nazarene952012103

Lutheran, Missouri Synod952111583

Jewish951023671

United Methodist Church9321222232

Episcopal924112468

Presbyterian Church USA914212542

United Church of Christ914041246

Independent Baptist910143905

Unitarian, etc.882254291

Orthodox Christian876231358

Latter-day Saints872137547

Free Methodist867530103

Presbyterian Church in in America865414168

Atheist863425499

Southern Baptist8581322520

Agnostic842446817

Church of God Cleveland8321311124

American Baptist814267406

Disciplines of Christ7980310137

No Religion7954481971

Church of Christ7613236561

Assemblies of God7222619477

Catholic65222297393

Religious, no affiliation601625171668

Buddhist5343254405

Jehovah's Witness48220524212

Seventh-Day Adventist43215427134

Muslim3724201541030

Church of God Christ11711413158

Hindu518842255

African Methodist Episcopal193051125

National Baptist098002549

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