Is Barack H. Obama whiter than Mitt Romney?

By Razib Khan | January 17, 2012 2:09 am

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Politics, Religion
  • Peter

    Maybe it’s just because I live in the New York area, but I definitely question the very low Asian percentages for Methodists and Presbyterians. Around here those seem to be predominately Asian (mostly Korean) denominations.

  • Konkvistador

    As someone who’s never lived in the US, looking at articles such as the Romney NYT articles I sometimes feel deeply uncomfortable. The implicit use of a picture of his otherwise pleasant family (the picture looks somewhat choreographed but family portraits always are) as somehow disturbing indicator of “Witness” and that that’s somehow nearly immoral or disqualifies one as a politicians, strikes me as at the very least hinting that *the very existence* of European American families or ethnic groups is somehow immoral. Or that being of predominately European descent by default incriminates you and you must prove to be free of sin before being fit for public life.

    I’m sure that as an American I’d find this just a normal part of the quest to find and diagnose signs of implicit racism/ethnocentrism in a society that has tabooed explicit expression of such feelings, but from the outside it just looks unhealthy. I guess taboos always do.

    Even so, the West is a pretty weird society by human standards.

  • Jacob Roberson

    Funny, I think of Baptist as black and white (somewhat like Peter’s surprise). But I guess 1) when I’ve lived in Baptist areas it’s been where the 8% are traditionally found, 2) my memory doesn’t care about SBC vs other “Baptist” churches.

  • Linda Seebach

    Is it accurate to say that whites have a strong revealed preference for marrying other white people? It is clearly correct for *blacks*; if blacks married without regard to race, then 7 out of 8 marriages where one partner is black would be to a non-black. But the actual number is much lower than that.

    So, given black preferences, how many blacks are available for whites to marry? Much less than one in eight.

    (Leaving aside some complications that males and females have different patterns, and that social class is also a factor.)

    By the way, “invariably” is too strong. The Lutheran church here (in Minnesota, and historically with a largely German and Scandinavian membership, though not so much now) has a number of counterexamples.

  • Justin Giancola

    2. I concur.

  • Razib Khan

    #4, i’ve addressed this issue explicitly. yes, it is accurate. and i’ve noted one can argue that asians have even a stronger revealed preference. so i don’t know why you bring up an issue which i am aware of, and which is correct, but also irrelevant. non-whites also have revealed preferences. and i’ve blogged extensively on the sex difference in racial preferences in dating/mating, and in that domain whites, especially white women, are the most homogamous of the ethnic/sex groups. if you’re confused by any of this look up “interracial dating” on this weblog, i’ve blogged it half a dozen times.

    By the way, “invariably” is too strong. The Lutheran church here (in Minnesota, and historically with a largely German and Scandinavian membership, though not so much now) has a number of counterexamples.

    invariably is too strong.

  • Razib Khan

    #2, part of the issue for me is the hypocrisy. overwhelming whiteness can be an ipso facto point of evidence in favor of racism or bigotry, when the reality is that many of the critics themselves make choices to marry and live among other white people as well, they simply don’t put the spotlight upon themselves. and why would they? whiteness is not ipso facto evidence of racism in and of itself, unless you would say everyone who prefers to date/marry people of their own race are racists (again, by revealed preferences that is most americans!).

    for example, i recently observed that there are WAY more asians in neuroscience and mo biol than evolutionary biology, at least when you go to a graduate seminar. why? is evolutionary biologist racist, with its whiteness as evidence? i doubt it. there are various cultural issues at work.

    back to the dynamic in politics, the issue is what white conservatives are judged as racist for being a predominantly white movement. are they racist? the social science data does indicate more racism than among white liberals. but one has to remember that this is a quantitative difference. there is evidence that white liberals are racist too, and their own environments are far whiter than you’d expect by “chance.” and, the other side of the ledger is the racism/same race preference of non-whites. latinos and blacks for standard economic reasons are not going to be conservatives, while the republican party today is a party of christians, and many asians are not christians. in other words, there are clear reasons why the modern republic party is the party of white people, that has nothing to do with whiteness as such (conservative christians who are asian american tend to be republican from the data i’ve seen, and wealthier latinos are far more likely to be republican).

    anyway, my big point is that it’s complicated. people who cherish complication and subtly throw it out in the window when attempting to generate caricatures of their opposition.

  • pconroy

    The thing I consistently notice concerning Obama and Racism is this…

    A few years ago when Obama was running for President, I asked a Black friend who he was voting for, he says without hesitation, “Obama!”. So I say, “What do you like about his policies?” and he says, “He’s Black, gotta support a brother!” Similarly many Liberal SWPL types give basically the same answer, the main/only reason they voted for Obama was that he was Black?!

    Doesn’t anyone realize that this is the very definition of Racism???

    Most SWPL’s – largely women, feminized men, and historically liberal minorities – get a cozy feeling inside thinking that voting for a Black man is flipping the bird to White people, especially White men – but I would go as far as saying that their actions are the very purest form of racism.

    I count myself among the Rationalist minority and based on Obama’s stated policies I predicted he would be a bad president, and unfortunately for the US, he is even worse than I could ever have imagined – yet I can be certain that racists will still gleefully vote for him…

  • Razib Khan

    #8, i think your model of how ppl make decisions relies too much on rationalism 😉 mostly it’s not rational, but tribal. racial, religious, regional, even class (e.g., likes of the educational elite identified with obama not because of his blackness as much as his harvard law lefty background).

  • pconroy

    #9, I agree that I make decisions fairly rationally, and expect too much of other people…

    But my main point is that the very act that SWPL/Liberal types unthinkingly see as being anti-Racist is the very definition of Racist – needless to say I’ve never got very far explaining that to SWPL’s, as they generally just can’t comprehend it…

  • Razib Khan

    is the very definition of Racist

    what’s the definition of racist? i think the term is so widely use it means different things to different people. that’s why i generally avoid. the klan and the nation of islam is racist. i generally don’t like going further than that (though use terms like ‘racialism’ and ‘race consciousness’ since those are less fraught).

  • pconroy

    For me:

    Racist = basing a decision solely or mostly on the basis of Race

    I use this in a value neutral way

  • syon

    pconroy:”For me:

    Racist = basing a decision solely or mostly on the basis of Race

    I use this in a value neutral way”

    Unfortunatley, most people seem to use it as an all-purpose perjorative.E.g., I was once chatting with a colleague who refered to someone as a “racist” because of his antipathy towards Islam. Now, people can dislike Islam because of the ethnic/racial composition of many of its adherents (i.e., for racial reasons), but the individual in question had revealed no such bias; his negative views, to the best of my knowledge, were entirely theological in nature. When I pointed this out to my colleague, making reference to the fact that he had made similar noises about fundamentalist Christians, he simply refused to acknowledge my point.

  • Eurasian Sensation

    @ pconroy:
    So I say, “What do you like about his policies?” and he says, “He’s Black, gotta support a brother!” Similarly many Liberal SWPL types give basically the same answer, the main/only reason they voted for Obama was that he was Black?!

    Yet I don’t think very many of those same Blacks/SWPLs would vote for Herman Cain or Alan Keyes, had they somehow become candidates. By contrast, Colin Powell hypothetically could have drawn a large percentage of this vote. Keyes and Cain are both more “authentically Black” than Obama in the sense that they are descended from slaves, and are not half-white.

    So it’s definitely a plus for some voters, but I think the amount of people who would vote for ANY black candidate solely on the basis of race is pretty small. Smaller, almost certainly, than the amount of people who wouldn’t vote for Obama because they think he’s a Muslim/foreigner/Black Revolutionary/etc.

    Bear in mind as well that the Black community has voted solidly Democratic for years, and all the previous candidates were white. Whatever you think of Obama’s policies and performance, it’s objectively not hard to see why a lot of people supported him – he appears intelligent and charismatic, and most people didn’t want 4 more years of Republicans. Hillary Clinton would have also won had she got the nomination.

  • ohwilleke

    “Trinity United Church of Christ is a predominantly black church with more than 8,500 members, located on the southwest side of Chicago.” The affiliation with the UCC is as much as anything a matter of convenience rather than a deep statement about the doctrine espoused in the local parish, which is sometimes described as black liberation theology.

    Also, far more interestingly, when it comes to religious belief, is the fact that both his father and mother were quite secular, that he grew up basically secular, and that President Obama is one of those rare cases in this day and age (particularly in Chicago of all places) of an adult convert to Christianity, not just an adult convert to a new Christian denomination, or an adult gaining baptized status among someone who grew up in an adult baptism denomination, but an adult convert to Christianity itself. That is exceedingly rare and tells us much more about the man than the affiliation of convenience of his home megachurch in Illinois.

  • Hallie Scott Kline

    At what age did he “get religion”? Whatever the age, I agree that it is rare, and in his case it was a good idea. Had he not, it’s very unlikely he would be president today.

  • isamu

    Obama is no Christian. Cathleen Falsani interviewed him in 2004 — its online, google it — focusing on his religious beliefs. He gave answers that no sincere believer would ever give. They were very calculated to please a secular liberal audience. His church attendance was purely social/political.

  • Razib Khan

    The affiliation with the UCC is as much as anything a matter of convenience rather than a deep statement about the doctrine espoused in the local parish, which is sometimes described as black liberation theology.

    this is false. as per its UCC membership trinity did not espouse the anti-gay rhetoric common in black churches, and was also notably (famously) universalist in its soteriology. IOW, it hybridized black nationalism with a liberal theology (most black churches have liberal politics, but conservative theologies).

  • Justin Giancola

    razib were actually referring to me and not 4 when you cited #5?

  • Razib Khan

    no, fixed.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

    Lots of Polynesian players on the BYU football team.

  • pconroy


    I’m not going to argue why people voted for Obama, except to say that everyone I talked to, race was the salient decider. Women especially were drawn to the supposed underdog emotional message, and were prepared to vote against their rational interests.

    As regards the other potential Black candidates, I’ve never liked Keyes at all, Cain seemed interesting initially, and Powell might have been someone I would have voted for – he seemed to be level-headed and smart.

  • ohwilleke

    @18 I’d offer by comparison the church that my wife grew up in, formally affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), a predominantly white denomination, even though their church was made up almost entirely of Korean immigrants and their families with all but one service each day in Korean, etc.

    While it never came out and defied the Presbyterian Church on any issue of doctrine, had a set of hymnals that it bought from the denomination, and bought its English language bibles in the translation preferred by the denomination, the bottom line is tht they were affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA) rather than the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Church of Christ, or the Southern Baptists, mostly because the Presbyterian Church (USA) was ready, willing and able to guarantee a favorable church building mortgage to a small congregation.

    My wife’s church, which was far more Evangelical in tone and practice than any predominantly white Presbyterian Church, with fire and brimstone sermons (infused with a healthy dose of Confucianists flavored Biblical interpretation), testimonials, Bible camps that featured episodes where teens would publicly swear off punk rock music or sexy clothes and toss them when they got home (to their great misery a few weeks later when the fervor wore off), wouldn’t be recognizably Presbyterian but for a few logos of the denomination scattered around.

    They wouldn’t have affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church or Episcopal Church or even the Lutheran Church under any circumstance, because the minimum level of conformity necessary to affiliate with those denominations in anything like good faith would have been too great. These minimum thresholds of daily practice are probably one of the reasons that the Lutheran and Episcopal Churches, together with modest immigration from places where these churches are predominantly non-white, probably help explain why these churches have remained so white. Liturgical Christians who aren’t Roman Catholic haven’t been a major Evangalism source in countries that have had major immigration in the 20th century to the U.S. (Then again, consider, e.g., The Storehouse Evangelical Covenant Church in Chicago, which has a Lutheran affiliation but also fits the affiliated rather than organically derived from model).

    There is a history/geography factor as well — the regions where the more white churches were predominant did not have significant number of black residents until the Great Migration well into the 20th century, and long after Emancipation, and even then there were very few rural blacks since the Great Migration was driven by big city industrial jobs. Also, many of the white denominations split on North/South lines around the time of the Civil War, making the rump Northern parts of the denominations much more white.

    But anyway, the practice of an ethnically atypical church affiliating with a denomination, despite the fact that it is deeply atypical of that denomination in a wide variety of other respects when it could have affiliated with any number of similar churches and doesn’t really have organic origins in that denomination, which is what I mean when I talk about an affiliation being mostly “a matter of convenience”, isn’t all that unusual and seems to be what happened in this particular instance.

  • April Brown

    Sorry if this is a dumb question – I might be having a brain fart. What is the “N” value in the chart that you posted?

  • Razib Khan

    N = sample size.

  • Razib Khan

    But anyway, the practice of an ethnically atypical church affiliating with a denomination, despite the fact that it is deeply atypical of that denomination in a wide variety of other respects when it could have affiliated with any number of similar churches and doesn’t really have organic origins in that denomination, which is what I mean when I talk about an affiliation being mostly “a matter of convenience”, isn’t all that unusual and seems to be what happened in this particular instance.

    as i said, it wasn’t atypical of UCC in a lot of ways. trinity is/was a theologically liberal black denomination, in part due to jeremiah wright’s choices (his father was a baptist). these are not common. two other prominent black clerics of the same tendencies are martin luther king jr. and desmond tutu. saying that affiliation with UCC was a matter of convenience is totally misleading, as it masks the particular confluence of black left political nationalism and liberal christian piety. i have seen it suggested in some places that wright’s church’s political radicalism was a necessary counterbalance to the fact that it was not in keeping with the fundamentalism/conservatism which is the norm in the black community.

  • LeoMarius

    BYU is over 95% white. Try finding a black man on campus who isn’t on an athletic scholarship.

    Look at the LDS GAs. Of the 100 top leaders, there is one black man in the group. Of the top 15, the only “diversity” is German Uchtdorf. The rest all American white men, largely from Utah, Idaho, Arizona or California.

    Yes, Mormons may baptize a few Hispanics, but it’s adherents are nearly all white.

  • Razib Khan

    #27, you’re stupid, or a liar. e.g., (14% non-white student body)

  • Clark

    Pconroy (9) I can’t quite tell in that case how to distinguish provincial identity politics from race issues. I suspect for many American blacks it’s much more about supporting someone from their community much as I bet many Mormons are supporting Romney because he’s a Mormon finally getting accepted. Although interestingly many Mormons are unwilling to do the same for Reid – so identity politics goes only so far. It’s too bad Colin Powell never ran back in ’96 for a variety of reasons. But I sure would have loved to have seen how the identity politics would have played out if the first black running for President with a chance to win did so on the Republican ticket. (Before Iraq turned into a mess some were hoping for a Condi run along the same lines)

    LeoMarius (27) even back when I was at BYU it wasn’t terribly hard to find non-athletic blacks. They still are a small minority and I know many non-whites I knew felt uncomfortable in that sea of whiteness. For others it was not a big deal. When I lived in an area where I was the only white I felt out of place initially but adjusted pretty quickly to the point that when I moved to Utah I hated seeing mainly whites. Interestingly back then there were a fair number of middle eastern non-Mormons at BYU as well. Not as many as at the Canadian college I went to earlier but a surprising number. Honestly I think most would love to have many more people of African descent (either recent or old) at BYU. There aren’t a lot in Provo. I’d love to see many more. But it’s not uncommon to see such diversity. There are several children of partial African descent in my daughter’s dance class.

    Certainly Provo’s a pretty white city. But it has been changing. It’s far more diverse now than 20 years ago. Hopefully that’ll continue since the Church is very much international now. I suspect in a fairly short time there will be more hispanic Mormons than those of primarily northern European or British descent.

    The leadership issue is a bit more complex as typically leadership has been in the Church a long time. So there are some black leaders although I believe most come from the Brazil area. I think everyone looks forward to having more. Certainly there are lots of very well regarded black Stake Presidents and so forth. The more surprising statistic is the lack of polynesian leadership given how many polynesian Mormons there are – even in Utah. Also the polynesian sub-community has a bit of a reputation as super-Mormons in some ways.

  • patrick

    Went to high school with a large number of Mormons, and I never encountered a black Mormon. The ones I have met have been almost all white (mostly of British/Northern European descent) with the remainder being Polynesian.
    As for Hispanic Mormons, the LDS church has been doing missionary work in Latin America for decades. I had two close friends whose older brother went on a mission trip to Uruguay and married a woman he met there.

  • Jason Malloy

    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!

    I don’t know if this is a mistake, but you link to the Obama entry instead of the United Church of Christ entry here (so the post doesn’t explicitly make the contrast):

    United Church of Christ 91%
    Latter-day Saints 87 %

    = Obama’s church is whiter

  • Razib Khan

    #31, it should jump down to the religion section. but yeah, i need to change that….

  • Clark

    Patrick, several wards (local congregations) I attended were more than 50% African American.

  • pconroy

    Religion holds no interest for me at all.

    The only times I knowingly met Mormons were twice people calling to the door to proselytize, and then the time at Burning Man when I met a Gay Chinese Mormon from Utah – who went on to tell me that he was embittered by the fact that church elders forced him out, as they didn’t accept gays as members.

  • Hail

    “[Mormons are] far less white than Jews

    What?? This is an absurd statement, as few Jews consider themselves ‘White’ in this context.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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