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How Far Will the LDS Church Go in Cracking Down on Racism?

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."

Amen.

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.

Topics: Faith, Doctrine & Practice
Beliefs: Mormon
Tags: brad kramer, by common consent, flunking sainthood, institutional repentance, joanna brooks, john dehlin, lds church statement on race, mitt romney 2012 election, mormon priesthood ban, mormonism and interracial marriage, mormons and race, nathan oman, racism and religion, randy bott, samuel brown, spencer w. kimball, the "curse of cain", washington post, young men's aaronic priesthood lesson 31

Comments

  1. Contrary to what is a common criticism of the Mormon Church—that they require members to just blindly follow without question—Mormons are allowed and encouraged to think, question, speculate and even speak out about their understanding of principles and doctrine. When what someone says is clearly wrong and has been said with some measure of assumed authority, then the Church tries to correct that, whether by a bishop speaking to a member who has taught incorrect doctrines, or the First Presidency correcting a BYU professor’s speculations. Anyone who speaks out certainly runs the risk of saying something that is not in keeping with Church doctrine because we can’t know everything and we always bring along our personal biases whether we realize it and admit it, or not.

    Bro. Bott’s comments were wrong. The Church made that perfectly clear. The current view of the Church is that they don’t know why there was a restriction on ordaining African-Americans. I believe them, they don’t know. You may think you know, just like Bro. Botts thought he knew why there was a restriction. But, the Church does not know and so that is where they stand. I think it is similar to the ongoing controversy about homosexuality and it’s origins. It’s becoming more and more accepted in society that one’s sexual orientation is determined from birth. Maybe it is. The Church’s position is that it does not know why someone has a “same-gender attraction”. Other’s may think they know why and say so, maybe they are right. But, the Church does not know why. I believe them. The Church has their standard for when they “know” and that is revelation. Whether one wants to accept their standard and believe in it is another matter, but that is their standard. If they knew the answer to these questions they would say it, but they don’t, so they don’t.

    Along the topic of speaking out about Church principles and doctrines incorrectly: The Church’s teaching about the Plan of Salvation is that there were not two plans. There was one plan, God’s Plan. Jesus accepted it and Satan did not. This was made clear to me recently at a stake conference talk given by Elder David Bednar (Apostle), but it is also clearly stated in True to the Faith (2004) (pg. 115-117). It seems the Apostles spend a lot of their time traveling the country and speaking to congregations in an effort to stomp out false teachings which are perpetuated by members.

    And, on another topic mentioned in your post, here is the context of the counsel by Pres. Kimball on marrying those of the same racial background:

    “We recommend that people marry those who are of the same racial background generally, and of somewhat the same economic and social and educational background (some of those are not an absolute necessity, but preferred), and above all, the same religious background, without question” (“Marriage and Divorce,” in 1976 Devotional Speeches of the Year [Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1977], p. 144).”

    The lesson outlines the benefits of marrying someone of one’s own faith. It then asks this discussion question:

    “• Why is it important for a couple to have a similar economic, educational, and cultural background?”

    It seems, given that Pres. Kimball’s talk is entitled “Marriage and Divorce”, that he is counseling people on how to have a strong marriage and avoid the challenges which often lead to divorce. Without question in Pres. Kimball’s day and earlier, marrying someone of a different racial background would have been a challenge—not because God was against it, or because the Church or Pres. Kimball was racist, but because our society was made up of many who were racist and they could make life very difficult for an interracial couple. Likewise, marrying someone of a different economic, educational, or cultural background does introduce challenges that can make a successful marriage more difficult.

    It isn’t fair at all to take that quote by Pres. Kimball and the fact that it is still included in a Youth teaching manual and conclude that the Church supports racism. The Church encourages happy, successful, eternal marriages, and always has—regardless of race.

  2. “The current view of the Church is that they don’t know why there was a restriction on ordaining African-Americans. I believe them, they don’t know. You may think you know, just like Bro. Botts thought he knew why there was a restriction. But, the Church does not know and so that is where they stand. I think it is similar to the ongoing controversy about homosexuality and it’s origins.”

    They don’t know why racism pervaded the LDS Church?  Really?..no seriously… REALLY? 

    2 Nephi 30:6 in the Book of Mormon taught that dark-skinned Lamanites (Indians) would eventually experience a change in the color of their skin should they embrace the Book of Mormon. This passage of Mormon scripture read:

    “...their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a white and a delightsome people.”

    Ofcourse, in 1981 “white” was changed and became “pure”  because it is not only racially insensitive, it was obvious dark skinned people don’t change color by virtue of reading the Book of Mormon or becoming LDS believers.  How curious and convenient that the “most correct book on earth”  as the Mormons refer to it should need a late 20th century revision.

    Second LDS President Brigham Young stated in 1859,:
    “You may inquire of the intelligent of the world whether they can tell why the aborigines of this country are dark, loathsome, ignorant, and sunken into the depths of degradation ...When the Lord has a people, he makes covenants with them and gives unto them promises: then, if they transgress his law, change his ordinances, and break his covenants he has made with them, he will put a mark upon them, as in the case of the Lamanites and other portions of the house of Israel; but by-and-by they will become a white and delightsome people” (Journal of Discourses 7:336)


    Loathsome, ignorant?  Why would anyone take that to be racist? I can’t imagine.


    “Juvenile Instructor” (26:635): “From this it is very clear that the mark which was set upon the descendants of Cain was a skin of blackness, and there can be no doubt that this was the mark that Cain himself received; in fact, it has been noticed in our day that men who have lost the spirit of the Lord, and from whom his blessings have been withdrawn, have turned dark to such an extend as to excite the comments of all who have known them.”

    Dark skin is god’s curse.  Hmmm..onlydo the Mormons attribute the mark of cain to be dark skin color.
    .
    In 1857,  Brigham Young declared that apostates would “become gray-haired, wrinkled, and black, just like the Devil” (Journal of Discourse 5:332). 

    Fall from the grace of the LDS church and BAM! you become a black person.  Nothing racist there. 

    There are many more examples of this focus on dark skinned, black acursed people. 
    And the apologist above, and the LDS church don’t know why racism exists w/in the Mormon church???

    I can’t tell if this is denial, ignorance of Mormon doctrine and history, or blatant lying.  I’m going to go with the latter, since it seems to be in such abundance among Mormon apologists.

  3. A 1974 church pamphlet excoriated homosexuality as evil and castigated parents of gays for having raised their children poorly.

    By 1992, a new teaching suggested that biological factors could be at work.

    1995 statements made by church President Gordon Hinckley said the church still expects gays to remain celibate. If they do, they will find themselves IMBUED WITH HETEROSEXUAL FEELINGS IN THE HEREAFTER,, which is peopled with families including a mother, a father and children.

    Talk about calling gays defective, and demeaning them.

    I’m expecting another one of those convienient “revelations from Gawd” to strike the mormon president sometime in the next 20 years to wit: Homosexuals will be treated like anyone else, their marriages accepted, they’ll be gay in the hereafter and it’s all good, and LDS church will deny they were ever homophobic / rabid bigots , and/or wonder why they were to begin with. 
    .

  4. In all the fopcus on the denial of preisthood ordination and temple ordinances to blacks before 1978, it should also be remembered that there was NO racial disability placed on American Indians, Polynesians, Asians, Hispanics, etc.  In the late 19th Century, Mormons were deemed to be a “distinct and degenerate race” because there were so many darned Scandinavian immigrants among them! 

    It is a basic fact of western US history that Mormons maintained much more positive and peaceful relations with the Indians than many other “white” settler communities did.  Unlike settlers in Colorado, who embarked on spurts of Indian extermination, significant parts of tribes were converted to Mormonism through the efforts of Mormon leaders and missionaries.  During the 1950s to the 1970s, the Indian Placement Program had Indian teenagers living with white Mormon families so they could get better educational opportunities than were available in many of the reservation schools.  In my own experience, the Indian kids who lived with Mormon families in my ward and stake were fully integrated into those families, often coming back year after year. 

    Even while the policy of discriminating against blacks on that aspect of church participation was solidifying, the Church was making great efforts to recruit people of other races, with great success in Hawaii in the 1850s and 1860s (under the direction of Brigham Young), resulting in the establishment of the town of Laie, the construction of the first Mormon temple outside North America in 1915, and eventually the establihsment of what became BYU Hawaii, which has students from all over the Pacific Rim in attendance, some of whom are fourth and fifth generation Mormon Polynesians and third generation Mormon Asians. 

    There has never been an effort to establish racially segregated congregations, as distinct from some language-specific congregations serving the needs of immigrants not yet fluent in English.  In my ward in Idaho, the Spanish language branch was served by ward members as interpreters and met in the Relief Society Room for Spanish language Sacrament Meeting, while the youth, all English speakers, were fully integrated into the Primary and Young Women/Aaaronic Priesthood meetings.  The Dai Ichi (First) Ward in Salt Lake has one Japanese language Sunday School class and provides simultaneous translation for those who are not bilingual, with speakers in either language.  When I grew up in Salt Lake in the 1950s, there were black members in my ward who taught Sunday School.  There were also black members in congregations I attended in Mississippi and Colorado in 1974, and in Maryland in 1978. 

    The 1978 change brought the status of Black Mormons into line with the preexisting status of not only white Mormons, but also American Indians, Hispanics, Polynesians, and Asians who have always been recruited and integrated into the Mormon membership for over 150 years.  That is why most Mormons speak languages NOT English and live outside the US; it is a process of international recruitment that has been pushed for over a century and a half, including by Young and other early leaders who are painted as “blackguards” by many people today.

  5. Well, that was about a self serving company line, pre-canned endorsement of the Moromn cult as one could ask for.  Alot of typing could have been avoided, and the apologetics line and obfuscation removed by just saying “Some of our best friends are people of color.”  How very inspiring. 

    And yet… the whole
    “The current view of the Church is that they don’t know why there was a restriction on ordaining African-Americans.”
    ...  which I easily demonstrated was directly born of Mormon doctrine, ala Jos. Smith, Brigham Young and others was inexplicably sidestepped, avoided and ignored.

    When I said:  “I can’t tell if this is denial, ignorance of Mormon doctrine and history, or blatant lying.  I’m going to go with the latter, since it seems to be in such abundance among Mormon apologists.”  I was clearly right on target.

    One cultists’ saint is a thinking man’s “blackgard”.  I imagine there are Catholics today who hold Tomás de Torquemada in high regard.  Or ask a Scientologist what they think of L Ron Hubbard and acclaim will follow. .  Jos. Smith, Young, and other founders and proliferators of LDS injustice and deception are no less than they.

  6. But , there is still an opportunity for the LDSchurch to break the image of cultlike haters. 

    Maybe they can stop going around the country spreading homophobia, intruding into the pursuit of happiness of gays by meddling in state’s affairs and imposing homophobic rhetoric where it has no bearing on the church or the promulgation of the faith or collecting of tithes.

    That way you won’t have to come back in 20 years and claim you don’t know why the LDS church was labeled as homophobic fanatics. But if you do, I’ll try hard to be here to remind you.

  7. Joseph Smith ordained black men in the Mormon priesthood, offered to adopt Jane Manning James, a young black woman who joined the Church, and in his 1844 presidential platform called for the Federal government to buy the freedom of all slaves using the proceeds of the sdale of the government’s western lands (rather than just give them away).  Brigham Young was very inviting to the Indians, and encouraged the Mormons to feed Indians who begged for food and other necessities of life. Church President Joseph F. Smith, nephew of Joseph, served as a missionary in Hawaii among native Hawaiians, and returned there in 1911 to dedicate the first temple outside North America in Laie.  Church President Heber J. Grant opened the missionary work in Japan in 1901.  Church President David O. McKay had, in 1920, gone on a round-the-world tour of the Mormon missions, spending Christmas with Mormons in Sapporo, Japan, and spending much time with congregations of Maori in New Zealand.  The Church made great strides in growing internationally during his presidency in the 1950s and 1960s.  President Spencer W. Kimball, who ended the priesthood ordination restriction, was the son of a president of the mission to American Indians in Oklahoma, and was very involved in promoting education, including college, for American Indian Mormons.  President Gordon B. Hinckley established the Perpetual Education Fund to provide education loans to Mormons in developing couontries so they could support themselves and their families more successfully.  He put more Church resources into BYU Idaho and BYU Hawaii so they can serve even more Mormon students from around the world and have reputations for producing top notch graduates in every field of study, with students form all races and, in the case of BYU Hawaii, some 70 countries. 

    Bart, I see how you hate to hear positive things about these Mormon church leaders, but your desire to hate them and try to justify that hate just is not supported by the facts.  Try to consider this: Spanish will soon become the plurality language of Mormons.  Right now, that are as many Mormons in just the two nations of Mexico and Brazil as in Utah.  And those “white folk” in Utah?  Many of them have lived two years of their lives in Mexico, Brazil, Japan, Taiwan, Kenya, Madagascar, Ukraine, and Siberia.  Mormons are an international ethnicity. 

    I am not just a Mormon, I am a Japanese-American Mormon.  My mother is Japanese, I was born in Japan, and I speak Japanese, and served as a missionary in Japan and returned with the US Air Force.  My children lived in Japan, and my grandchildren have Japanese names.  And there are lots of cross-cultural, multi-racial Mormons like me.  And Mormons like it that way. 

    One of my Japanese fellow missionaries form Osaka has several daughters.  One served a mission in Florida.  Another attended BYU Idaho and married a local.  Another graduated from BYU Hawaii and she and her husband work in Chicago.  Another Japanese friend is an economist with the International Monetary Fund.  His wife is from Rochester and served a mission in Peru.  This is the shape of the future, a future in which the US must become more international and more racially mixed, a direction where the Mormons are already headed.

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