The church’s recently published document, “Race and the Priesthood,” has received a great deal of attention over the past few days. While much of this reception has been positive, I want to suggest some reasons to curb this enthusiasm in order to more critically evaluate the function of this document within the larger contexts of church doctrine, policy, and history making. This should not be taken as an exercise in unproductive cynicism, but as a real concern that a too quick and uncritical celebration of this document will simultaneously blind us and make us complicit in a dangerous whitewashing of history that carries heavy implications for both the past and the present.
Most clearly, the article states,
“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”
This is definitely a much needed, long overdue disavowal of racist teachings, yet even as this statement seems to be moving in the right direction, it also reveals the deceptive rewriting of history ultimately accomplished in this document. We’re not dealing with mere “theories” that a few Mormons may have happened to buy into, we’re talking about official church doctrine taught and upheld as the word of God by more than half of the church’s prophets over the course of 126 years. As Gina Colvin writes on her blog, KiwiMormon, “the racial theories of the past were declared, understood and promulgated as doctrines and thus need to be officially repudiated in General Conference, as letters to be read by Bishoprics to their congregations, in addendum documents provided with curriculum materials.”
In rewriting church history, this document works to sever the link between church leaders and the racist doctrines they taught, fabricating instead a fictional, counter-historical, and mythical image of LDS prophets and apostles as always inherently working for racial equality. As many people have already pointed out, it is extremely encouraging that in this document, the church is finally discussing the role played by secular culture and politics in shaping the beliefs of church members, as the article contextualizes the founding of the church in the midst of antebellum slaveholding America. What is disconcerting, though, is what the church does with this recognition. Instead of candidly acknowledging the messy business of transforming secular culture into official church doctrine, the article focuses primarily on US history so that this larger cultural-historical context comes to stand in for individual church leaders as the ultimate and sole source of the church’s false racist doctrines.
The language used is purposely vague: “According to one view, which had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s, blacks descended from . . . Cain,” and “those who believed this view believed that God’s curse on Cain was the mark of a dark skin.” The passive language of this passage attempts to obscure the facts that: a) these “views” were in fact translated into official church doctrine, taught as the Divine and Eternal Truth of God for well over 100 years; and b) “those who believed this view” were in fact groups of high-ranking leaders—individuals specifically named in the historical record—proclaiming to be prophets and apostles speaking on behalf of God. Most definitely, the cultural and political context in which church leaders lived is where their racist views came from, but without openly discussing the ways these wrongheaded, entirely un-Christian, manmade beliefs became translated into official church doctrines—doctrines that are, in fact, false—these cultural factors become much more than influences, they become the sole and only source of it all. Through this maneuver, the church attempts to de-link individual church leaders from the uninspired racism they for so long passed off as Divine Revelation.
After severing this connection, the church’s article manufactures and deploys a fictional and mythical image of egalitarian-minded prophets and apostles. This is most clearly seen in the way the article talks about Brigham Young. After a refreshingly frank statement that “in 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood,” things unfortunately get a little weird. Two paragraphs later, the article tries to temper, explain away, and hide Young’s racist doctrines by asserting, “at the same time, President Young said that at some future day, black Church members would ‘have [all] the privilege and more’ enjoyed by other members.” The only quote from Young the article gives us is this line that paints a picture of a man who, despite what may have been going on around him, remained true to some prophetic vision of a racially egalitarian future. This image is misleading; it is an inaccurate characterization. It should also be noted that the source of this quote is a speech Young delivered as a public leader speaking to the Utah territorial legislature, not as a spiritual leader preaching a sermon. For the pulpit, the site from which the word of God is supposedly delivered, Young reserved his true bigotry:
“You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind. . . . Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race—that they should be the ‘servants of servants;’ and they will be, until that curse is removed; and the Abolitionists cannot help it, nor in the least alter that decree (from “Intelligence, Etc.: Remarks by President Brigham Young, delivered in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, October 9, 1859. Journal of Discourses, Volume 7).
With this newly minted image of a transcendentally minded, non-racist Brigham Young firmly in place, the church’s article creates a whole lineage of prophets and apostles who, despite the racist times around them, nonetheless remained true to a vision of a more just future. As with its treatment of Young, though, this vision is misleading and slides around the real nature of the church’s racist doctrines and history. The article jumps from its revision of Brigham Young to brief discussions of David O. McKay and on to Spencer W. Kimball and the eve of Official Declaration 2. In the article, this entire history—more than 100 years long and involving 10 of the church’s 16 presidents—is neatly summarized as one in which “church leaders pondered promises made by prophets such as Brigham Young that black members would one day receive priesthood and temple blessings.” The church’s legacy of sustained racism, in the rhetorical alchemy of this article, is thus morphed into a fabricated tale in which leaders pursue an ongoing quest for greater equality.
Cut out of this story are the many women and men—people like Darron T. Smith, Lowry Nelson, Lester E. Bush, Jr., and countless others—who have labored, struggled, and resisted against church leaders, pushing, challenging, and pressuring the church to reexamine and end its racist doctrines and practices. In their place, the article constructs a narrative in which church leaders are framed—despite all appearances and historical implications to the contrary—as constantly working to bring about the vision of a racially inclusive future originally articulated by Brigham Young. This is perhaps the article’s most grievous sin, as it entirely inverts the identities and positions of key historical figures. Those advocating and working for justice, love, and righteousness are entirely excised from the narrative while those who created, taught, and upheld false doctrines, those who disciplined, threatened, and decried the true workers of love suddenly become the heroes. Isaiah’s words, speaking thunder, here come to mind:
“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).
On the whole, while I think there is some reason to celebrate the church’s publication of this document—at the very least they’re willing to kind of talk about race, acknowledge the presence of culture in the formation of religion, and separate the present church from racist theories—the manipulative and deceptive uses to which these potential advancements are put overshadow the entire thing. Instead of taking this opportunity to acknowledge that church leaders—individuals believed to be prophets and apostles—insistently and belligerently taught the hateful and wrongheaded doctrines of men, passing them off as God’s Truth, and then apologizing for it, the church attempts to reinforce its narrative of leader infallibility, this time packaged in a different wrapper. With this document, then, the church works to maintain its self-proclaimed pedestal at the expense of speaking truth and healing wounds. A history of pain, hate, and deceit is twisted to become a tale of unquestionably righteous male leaders faithfully seeking God’s will. A history in which rank-and-file church members boldly and courageously stand for what they know to be right and good is entirely ignored, replaced instead by a fabricated celebration of the very men against whom these members struggled.
All of this has real implications for the church today. Most immediately, the article’s whitewashing of history allows it to reach the uncanny conclusion that somehow racism is entirely gone, a thing of the distant past, some unpleasant relic “unfamiliar and disturbing today.” It also allows the church to assert an image of a racially diverse and inclusive leadership body, an image immediately undermined by even a passing glance at the racial makeup of the church’s global leadership. As Kevin Harper so succinctly worded it in a Facebook post, all of this “shows the blinders are still on.”
Perhaps most problematic and concerning, though, is the larger discourse being propped up by this historical telling. The story told on the church’s website is a history in which its leaders always have in mind what’s best and most just, even if their actions indicate otherwise. It is a story in which member agitation, organization, and speaking have no place, where such actions are rendered entirely unnecessary if not unrighteous. It is a story in which the all-male church leadership will always do the right thing, entirely independent of outside voices, pressures, questions, or actions. Ultimately, it is a story in which the best thing for members to do is sit back, stay in line, and never question leaders, since they already and always have the best possible goals in mind and will unfailingly accomplish these goals all on their own. Ordain Women, Feminist Mormon Housewives, Young Mormon Feminists, the many other Mormon feminist movements, Mormon Stories, Dialogue, Sunstone, Mormon LGBTQ groups, a host of blogs and bloggers, and every other progressive-minded Mormon grassroots effort have no place in the history articulated in the church’s new article. And yet, any meaningful advancement the church has experienced—most notably Official Declaration 2—resulted from precisely these types of Mormons.
We should think deeply and critically about the church’s latest publication, celebrating those things worth celebrating while resisting the church’s efforts to whitewash and manufacture a new history. Through so doing we may better honor the church’s (still) unmentioned heroes, and maintain a present in which we might more effectively continue their work of love.