Is Mormonism Still Racist?

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
March 2 2012 8:30 AM

Is Mormonism Still Racist?

Comments from a BYU professor stir up a troubling past.

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A statue of Brigham Young, second president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and namesake of Brigham Young University, stands in the center of Salt Lake City

GEORGE FREY/AFP/Getty Images.

“God has always been discriminatory.” So says Randy Bott, a professor of religion at Brigham Young University, in a Washington Post piece by Jason Horowitz. Bott’s statements have kicked up the most significant dust storm concerning Mormonism and race in 30 years. Bott was quoted at length in Horowitz’s piece, which was published on Tuesday. (Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.) By Tuesday night, BYU students were planning protests concerning Bott’s comments, ABC4’s 10 o’clock news in Salt Lake City had cut off coverage of Mitt Romney’s primary sweep to report on those comments, and BYU administrators—not to mention members of the LDS Church’s hierarchy—had huddled together, trying to come up with an appropriate response.

Bott’s comments—about which more below—were incendiary. But they wouldn’t have any significance were it not for the LDS Church’s complicated and troubling history with regard to race, a history that many Mormons might have hoped was safely in the past.

Starting shortly after the death of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, in 1844, the Mormon Church began denying its priesthood—otherwise granted to faithful young men over the age of 12 more or less as a matter of course—to men of African descent. That policy survived for well over a century. Only with a divine revelation announced by then-prophet Spencer W. Kimball in 1978 did the church finally overturn the ban and allow “all worthy males,” regardless of race, full and equal membership in the religion.

Why did the church withhold the priesthood from blacks for over a century? Among the reasons trotted out by church leaders—including church presidents—during that time: Black people are the cursed descendants of ancient Biblical figures; black people committed pre-mortal perfidy; black people lacked the intelligence and personal integrity to hold such a sacred office.

Such past beliefs have never officially been repudiated. And the failure of the church to repudiate them helped set the stage for the comments made by Bott, perhaps the most popular professor at BYU (and at one point, according to ratemyprofessors.com, the most popular professor in the country). Bott, 67, teaches in the school’s religion education department, which is more like a college-level seminary class than the standard “religious studies” program at a liberal arts college. In his comments to the Post, Bott cited the Old Testament anti-heroes Cain and Canaan, whom Christians of many denominations long believed to be cursed for their ancient transgressions, marking their offspring with dark skin and casting them into perpetual servitude of the lighter skinned races.

The Mormon Church’s own longstanding priesthood ban was, according to Bott, not racist. Rather, it was a “blessing.” Prior to 1978, blacks weren’t spiritually mature enough to be ordained with such authority. Bott compared blacks to “a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car,” and told Horowitz that misusing priesthood authority—like crashing dad’s Oldsmobile—could have put blacks “in the lowest rungs of hell,” reserved for serial killers, child rapists, world-class tyrants, and “people who abuse their priesthood powers.”

On Wednesday, Bott apologized to his students for the uproar. He also claimed that he had been misquoted. Yet he provided similar justification for the priesthood ban in a blog post from 2008 that was only taken down after this week’s story broke.

For many Mormons, reading Bott’s words was like unearthing a theological dinosaur long thought extinct but suddenly rediscovered in the corner of an obscure BYU office. His positions seem radically out of place in a modern church with an international membership that includes probably some 500,000 Mormons of African descent. The church’s expensive and ubiquitous “I’m a Mormon” public relations campaign has been carefully and deliberately multiethnic; Mormon leaders want the world to view the religion as the diverse global community it has become.

Unfortunately, Bott’s beliefs, though arcane, represent a strain of Mormonism that has persisted well past the 1978 revelation. For most of the 182-year lifespan of the LDS Church, members of the church hierarchy—the senior-most of which are called prophets and speak to and for God—used similar racist rationalizations for excluding blacks from full membership. Joseph Fielding Smith, who served as church president in the early 1970s (and was the great-nephew of the religion’s founding prophet), wrote a popular treatise, still available on Kindle, asserting that during a pre-mortal battle between God and the devil, blacks were “fence-sitters,” siding neither with God or Lucifer. According to Fielding Smith, when blacks came to Earth, God cursed them with dark skin to set them apart from the more courageous whites who had sided with God.

Rather than explicitly denouncing such racialist theology, the LDS Church has insisted that Kimball’s 1978 revelation, known as Official Declaration 2, stands on its own, hoping that time—and the church’s humanitarian and missionary efforts in Africa and around the world—would help to bury its racist past. Bott’s comments only highlight how this strategy has failed. The 1978 revelation itself does not address why the ban was instituted in the first place, and the lack of answers from today’s Mormon leaders creates a theological vacuum. To fill this vacuum, Mormons turn to the reams of answers provided by past prophets, who led a church in which blacks were not welcome.

 

Thus, some Mormon parents continue to teach their children beliefs like those proffered up by Bott. Some Sunday school teachers continue to answer questions about the priesthood denial by citing Cain, Canaan, and “fence-sitting.” And, at church meetings, some black Mormons still hear racial slurs. As African-American convert to the church Tamu Smith said in the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, “the first time I was called a nigger was in the Salt Lake Temple.”

Just this past month, the BYU campus became embroiled in a controversy concerning racism—or, at the very least, racial insensitivity and ignorance. In a satirical celebration of black history month, comedian David Ackerman dressed in a hoodie, Utah Jazz gear, and blackface, and quizzed BYU students on their knowledge of African-American history. On the video, which went viral, BYU students failed to correctly identify February as black history month and failed to name important black American figures beyond Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. (The rapper 50 Cent was also named as a hero of black history.) And Ackerman succeeded in getting his painfully naive interviewees to imitate what they believed to be typical black behavior, with finger snapping, the “gangsta limp,” and jive talk all making appearances.

According to Darron Smith—an African-American convert to Mormonism and a BYU alum who, from 1996 to 2006, taught a course there called “The African American Experience”—Ackerman’s video reveals that problematic attitudes about race are not limited to “older generations” of Mormons. Ackerman “provided a microphone for today’s BYU students (even the few black BYU students) to voice their ignorance about the black experience in America.” And while you might very well see something similar at other “isolated, conservative” college campuses around the country, in Smith’s view, the deference of BYU students to church authority makes church leaders responsible for such ignorance—a point now driven home by Bott’s remarks. Smith places the lion’s share of the blame on BYU’s administration. (Smith’s own contract at BYU was not renewed in 2006.)

That same administration has in the past celebrated Bott as one of its most effective  teachers, and has given him the charge of educating generations of Mormons—and generations of Mormon missionaries—in the fundamental theologies of their faith. Some 3,000 students will take Bott’s classes this year. (Only 11 students are signed up for the African-American experience class Darron Smith used to teach.)

Asked for comment on the Bott affair, BYU officials directed me to a very general statement from the LDS Church Public Affairs office condemning racism. But my contacts at BYU have said that faculty members were generally shocked by Bott’s statements—in part because he went around school administration and talked to the media directly about such a sensitive matter. In an email to several faculty members, Terry Ball, dean of religious education, expressed his disgust with Bott’s statements and said he would “deal with Bott professionally.” (In a 2008 Deseret News story celebrating Bott’s ranking as America’s favorite professor, this same Dean Ball lavished praise on Bott, saying he was “among the excellent of the excellent” religion professors at BYU.)

My requests to speak to a member of the LDS hierarchy—the small cadre of men who have the authority to address whether Bott’s statements reflect current or past church doctrine—have been denied. That official statement from the Church Public Affairs office calls it “unfortunate that the Church was not given a chance to respond to what others said,” and asserts that the church does not “tolerate racism in any form.”

Almost to a person, the Mormons—both black and white—whom I have spoken with since the Post story broke were hoping for a “miracle,” as one well-known black Mormon called it—i.e., a full repudiation of the church’s past racial discrimination from a church apostle rather than a press release from the public affairs office. That miracle has not arrived so far.

Yet Mormons around the country—including Bott’s own colleagues and BYU students—are working to make this moment a turning point in Mormonism’s history of race relations. Around water coolers, in classrooms, in blog posts and op-eds, a growing number of Mormons who find Bott’s beliefs in direct conflict with the main tenets of their gospel are not waiting for church leaders to speak. Darius Gray, one of the black Mormons featured in the Post article, told me that he expects Bott’s comments to force Mormons both at a grassroots level and at church headquarters to begin the process of “healing wounds not creating them.” His belief was echoed by his longtime writing partner, BYU professor Margaret Young. “This is the beginning of our Truth and Reconciliation,” she told me. “This will help us deal with the history of apartheid in our own Church.”

Max Perry Mueller is a Ph.D. candidate in the Study of Religion at Harvard and associate editor of the online journal Religion & Politics.

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