Why race is still a problem for Mormons

  • Article by: JOHN G. TURNER , New York Times
  • Updated: August 20, 2012 - 7:44 PM

In the U.S., not all Mormons look like members of the Romney family. Still, the church hasn't quite reconciled with its racist past.

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Mitt Romney surrounded by his family.

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"I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people," Elder Kevin Price sings in the Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon." The line is meant to be funny, and it is -- in part because it's true.

In a June 1978 letter, the first presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaimed that "all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color."

Men of African descent could now hold the priesthood, the power and authority exercised by all male members of the church in good standing. Such a statement was necessary, because until then, blacks were relegated to a very second-class status within the church.

The revelation may have lifted the ban, but it neither repudiated it nor apologized for it. "It doesn't make a particle of difference," the Mormon apostle Bruce R. McConkie proclaimed a few months later, "what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978."

McConkie meant such words to encourage Mormons to embrace the new revelation, and he may have solemnly believed that it made the history of the priesthood ban irrelevant. But to many others around the country, statements of former church leaders about "the Negro matter" do, in fact, matter a great deal.

They cause pain to church members of African descent, provide cover for repugnant views and make the church an easy target for criticism and satire. The church would benefit itself and its members -- and one member in particular, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee -- by formally repudiating the priesthood ban and the racist theories that accompanied it.

Mormonism wasn't always troubled by anti-black racism. In a country deeply stained by slavery and anti-black racism, the church, founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, was noteworthy for its relative racial egalitarianism. Smith episodically opposed slavery and tolerated the priesthood ordination of black men, at least one of whom, Elijah Abel, occupied a position of minor authority.

It was Smith's successor, Brigham Young, who adopted the policies that now haunt the church. He described black people as cursed with dark skin as punishment for Cain's murder of his brother. "Any man having one drop of the seed of Cane in him cannot hold the priesthood," he declared in 1852. Young deemed black-white intermarriage so sinful that he suggested that a man could atone for it only by having "his head cut off" and spilling "his blood upon the ground." Other Mormon leaders convinced themselves that the pre-existent spirits of black people had sinned in heaven by supporting Lucifer in his rebellion against God.

The priesthood ban had sweeping ecclesiastical consequences for black Mormons. They could not participate in the sacred ordinances, like the endowment ceremony (which prepares one for the afterlife) and sealings (which formally bind a family together), rites that Smith and Young taught were necessary to obtain celestial glory.

Of course, while perhaps unusual in its fervor and particular in its theories, the rhetoric of Mormon leaders was lamentably within the mainstream of white American opinion. White Christians of many denominational stripes used repugnant language to justify slavery and the inferiority of black people. Most accepted theories that the sins of Cain and Ham had cursed an entire race. Indeed, those white Americans who today express outrage over Mormon racism should remind themselves of their own forebears' sins before casting stones at the Latter-day Saints.

Most Protestant denominations, however, gradually apologized for their past racism. In contrast, while Mormon leaders generically criticize past and present racism, they carefully avoid any specific criticism of past presidents and apostles, careful not to disrupt traditional reverence for the church's prophets.

To an extent, this strategy has worked. The church is now much more diverse, with hundreds of thousands of members in Africa and many members of African descent in Latin America. In the U.S., not all Mormons look like members of the Romney family: Mia Love, a daughter of Haitian immigrants and the Republican nominee for a Utah congressional seat, proudly states that she has "never felt unwelcome in the church."

Nevertheless, regardless of how outsiders would respond (audiences will still enjoy that line in "The Book of Mormon"), a fuller confrontation with the past would serve the church's interests. Journalists frequently ask prominent Mormons like Romney and Love about the priesthood ban.

African-Americans, both members and prospective converts, find the history distinctly unsettling. Statements by prior church presidents and apostles provide fodder for those Latter-day Saints -- if small in number -- who adhere to racist notions.

The church could begin leaving those problems behind if its leaders explained that their predecessors had confused their own racist views with God's will and that the priesthood ban resulted from human error and limitations rather than a divine curse. Given the church's ecclesiology, this step would be difficult.

Mormons have no reason to feel unusually ashamed of their church's past racial restrictions, except maybe for their duration. Their church, like most other white American churches, was entangled in a deeply entrenched national sin.

Still, acknowledging serious errors on the part of past prophets inevitably raises questions about the revelatory authority of contemporary leaders. Such concerns, however, are not insurmountable for religious movements. One can look to the Bible for countless examples of patriarchs and prophets who acknowledged grave errors and moral lapses but still retained the respect of their people.

Likewise, the abiding love and veneration most Latter-day Saints have for their leaders would readily survive a fuller reckoning with their human frailties and flaws. The Mormon people need not believe they have perfect prophets, either past or present.

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