The Mormon Bloggernacle is whirring with commentary about the racist remarks that BYU professor Randy Bott made to the Washington Post and the LDS Church's swift denunciation of his justifications for witholding the priesthood from African Americans until 1978. Nate Oman has written an eloquent indictment of Bott's racism for the Deseret News; Sam Brown, writing in the Huffington Post, sees the episode as the last gasp of a waning racist fringe (here's hoping!); and Joanna Brooks hopes aloud in Religion Dispatches that maybe, just maybe, the debacle will prompt someone in authority to "finally articulate the most credible and reasonable explanation for Mormonism's historic discrimination against black people: we were wrong."
Apparently the comments that Bott made in a Washington Post article on Tuesday are not an unfortunate one-time blunder; he has taught the same ideas in his religion classes at BYU for years, and also on his blog. By Common Consent has published a pdf of a 2008 post (which has apparently been removed from Bott's site) in which he performs contortionist hermeneutical gymnastics to defend and justify a racist practice.
In the post, Bott comes across as patronizing in the extreme (the African American with whom he is debating is called "articulate" -- groan! -- "spirited," and "bold," for example). Bott describes a conversation with the African American investigator in a classically racist way in which it takes an Enlightened White Man to inform an oppressed person of color that said person of color is not, in fact, oppressed. Said person of color is also persuaded that he or she would not actually want the privilege in question (freedom, the right to vote, or in this case, the priesthood), because, gosh, it is just too much responsibility. Much better to leave that kind of decisionmaking to the white folks. By the end Bott is suggesting that blacks really don't want the priesthood because they're just not spiritually ready for the burden. People of African descent might hold the priesthood but misuse it, and who would want that? Then they would become sons of perdition. (BTW, he also uses the same infinitely adaptable argument with the token woman present. She does not get the priesthood either.)
For Mormons, the first red flag about such ideas should always be that our cosmogony ascribes any attempt to remove individuals' agency and choice, thereby ensuring eternal spiritual safety with no possibility of progress, to Satan. In the Mormon origin story, Satan and Jesus each presented God the Father with a possible plan (because only Mormons could make the heavens sound like a corporate board meeting). Satan's plan sounded awfully good on paper: every single soul would be saved. Not one would be lost, because everyone would be compelled to obey. That's one heck of an attractive P&L sheet for the corporation, but no, God in the story goes with Plan B, Jesus on the cross, despite the tremendous cost.
So Bott's argument -- that African Americans should not get opportunity for progress because they might fail -- is a lame, specious rationale. But it arrives all tricked out with rhetorical exhortations to simply trust that God knows what he is doing in proscribing the priesthood. "Does He have to account to you on why He does what He does?" Bott demands. So it all boils down to the same old, same old: If you perceive injustice and call a spade a spade, you simply lack faith. You are not allowing God to be God!
The argument makes me angry, but no more so than other spurious justifications that were used over time to justify denying the priesthood to blacks. In the past, church leaders from Brigham Young to Bruce R. McConkie and Mark E. Peterson have taught, for example, that blacks were blighted with the curse of Cain. (This, Mormons are quick to point out, is a legacy we received from Protestantism. It's funny how Mormons were able to restore the great theological truths that Protestants allegedly missed but we are in Protestantism's thrall when it comes to mimicking their racial errors.) Other justifications were uniquely Mormon, like that blacks were less valiant in the premortal existence -- "fence-sitters" who would not choose to take God's part during the War in Heaven. Grrrrr.
This year, during the height of Mitt Romney's campaign for the presidency, it's easy to see why the LDS Church would be so quick to pounce on Professor Bott's hapless attempt to justify a policy that (as Joanna pointed out) is only easily explained by the following three statements: It was racist. It was morally wrong. We are so, so sorry.
Why is that so hard for the institution to say?
Don't get me wrong. The Church made a great leap forward yesterday in its statement about race (and nowadays, a statement from the Church Public Affairs Department is about the closest anyone gets to clarifying Mormon theology as it's understood in the moment). And the news release does end with the strong line that "We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church." But it does not name the racism, which is a key component of repentance.
Although Mormonism, like most of American religion, has made tremendous strides on racial issues in the last 40 years, Bott's comments did not come out of vacuum, as though a lone rogue throwback had single-handedly returned the Church to the 1950s. Some of this stuff is still in the air and even in the books. John Dehlin, for example, points out that the Young Men's Aaronic Priesthood Lesson 31 still retains President Spencer W. Kimball's 1977 recommendation that "people marry those who are of the same racial background generally." As the Church undergoes its long, long, long-overdue process of revising the teens' curriculum, that passage needs to be removed post haste. (And, since I am dreaming aloud here, how about also realizing that the companion lesson to this one in the Young Women's manual removes girls' agency with its very title "Becoming an Eternal Companion"? It seems boys get to choose their mate, and girls get to be chosen. The Church might repent of giving a teenage girl the idea that it is her life's work only to make herself worthy of being passively "taken" to the temple by Peter Priesthood. But I digress.)
We could also use some General Conference talks that use words like "wrong" and "sorry" and "misguided" when referring to Mormonism's racist past. Members of the Church take their cues from leaders, and if those leaders do not name the mistakes of the past (and, it seems, the present), members will not be challenged to realize that denying the priesthood to blacks was wrong. As Brad Kramer said in a BCC post that should be required reading for Mormons,
The racism of the doctrinal rationalizations of the policy were only symptomatic of the fact that the policy itself was racist. Full stop. To construct for ourselves a narrative in which it was right to exclude persons with black African ancestry prior to the revelation, and then right to include them after the revelation only because of the revelation is to posit a universe in which such an exclusion on the basis of racial heritage is still, at least in theory, totally fine, but just doesn’t happen to be fine at the present moment (because currently, it doesn’t happen to be our policy). Even if we express gratitude that the practice changed, if we are unwilling to admit that it changed precisely because it was wrong, that it was an evil made good, an error corrected, a wrong righted, then our gratitude itself still subtly accepts and upholds a fundamentally racist view of the world. It says “it’s totally okay to withhold temple covenants and sealings on the basis of race, but thank goodness we aren’t doing that right now.”
I'm frankly glad to see that the media scrutiny afforded by the Romney campaign is igniting some change on this issue. And I pray that Mormons will live the truth of one of our sacred texts, the Book of Mormon, when it reminds us that God calls all people and "denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female . . . all are alike unto God" (2 Nephi 26:33).
"Racism" image used by permission of Shutterstock.com.