The following is excerpted from Mormon Matters podcast episodes 79 and 80, “How Can We Truly Confront Racism within Mormon Thought and Culture?,” which can be heard in its entirety or downloaded by visiting www.mormonmatters.org. The podcast conversation took place in early March 2012, within days of the publication of a Washington Post article on the history of race issues in Mormonism. The most controversial aspect of the article was its discussion of several comments by then-BYU religion professor Randy Bott, in which he offered speculative defenses for the pre-1978 priesthood ban, suggesting that it was not “racist” because God was protecting a group not spiritually ready for the responsibilities associated with the priesthood and temple. Within hours of the article’s publication, the LDS Church’s website released a statement disavowing as speculation all theories—past or present—offering to explain the ban.
The panel discussion was led by Mormon Matters host, Dan Wotherspoon. Short bios of the panelists can be found at the end of this piece.
Dan Wotherspoon: Even though it has caused a great deal of cringing, the recent Washington Post article—and especially Professor Bott’s comments—have at least triggered good discussion. I’d like to have us begin with everyone sharing a bit about what people around you have been saying since the article and the Church’s response to it came out. Gina, has this raised a stir at all in New Zealand?
Gina Colvin: A little while ago, I did a study on LDS New Zealanders’ understanding of the past doctrine on race, and found that the Saints here think of it as an American problem. They see the racial issues of the pre-1978 period as an example of how religion and politics can get conflated. So, in terms of an immediate reaction, I haven’t seen any.
I teach Gospel Doctrine, and last week happened to be on 2 Nephi 26, which contains the “all are alike unto God” passage. This gave me a chance to discuss the Church’s statement, and it was met by surprise, with lots of people wanting to see copies of it. An older member of the class said, “I’ve never heard anything like that; that’s wonderful.” So, in terms of the discussion hitting the spotlight here, it hasn’t really happened.
Dan: Brad, what are people saying to you? Any patterns you’re noticing?
Brad Kramer: I’ve heard all the reactions that you’d expect: people trying to downplay it as a problem; people getting really angry and indignant about how this is peeling the scab off of wounds that we’re trying to heal.
I’ve been going out of my way to call it not just a priesthood ban but a priesthood and temple ban. And when I only call it one of the two, I’ll call it a temple ban. I’m trying to highlight the most devastating part of the policy—it wasn’t simply an exclusion from ecclesiastical privilege for black males, but an exclusion from exalting ordinances for all black members of the Church.
Marguerite Driessen: That’s really interesting to bring up because even as a black convert to the Church in 1981, I didn’t know about that aspect of the restriction until recently. I knew about the priesthood restriction but didn’t know that the Church actually extended that restriction to all other temple blessings as well. That is not something that is generally talked about or known.
Brad: This very unfortunate part of our history can actually teach us something about the relationship between the priesthood and the temple. At its very deepest core, the fullness of the priesthood is inextricably tied to the temple; you simply can’t extract one from the other.
I’ve found that describing the policy as a priesthood and temple ban resonates really strongly with people who have always had a hard time with the policy—younger folks, people who never had to get used to the existence of the ban in the first place, people who have always been uncomfortable with it. But older folks—folks in my dad’s generation, people who actually had to learn to live with it—really take issue with my terming it a temple ban. They feel as if I’m trying to describe it in deliberately offensive terms, or that I’m exaggerating what it really was.
From these reactions, I’m sensing that people who are more indignant about this part of our history and want to forcefully disavow or repudiate it see racism in any form as a very, very serious problem. And from people who don’t feel as strongly about disavowing the ban, I see a tendency to treat racism as a problem but not a super-bad problem—more like, “Let’s put things in perspective, folks. Yeah it’s bad, but it’s not that bad.”
What I’ve come to realize from these reactions is that there’s a peculiar flavor of racism in Utah. It’s not the sort of deeply entrenched, white-supremacy racism you might encounter in residual forms in the American South. It’s a racism that manifests itself in part by trivializing the problem of racism.
Marguerite: Let me interject that as somebody who currently lives in Utah County, I definitely encounter the casual form of racism Brad talks about. But really it goes another step further: there are a lot of people here who don’t just trivialize racism, they don’t even recognize it. They act in ways that are clearly discriminatory or they accept racial stereotypes and prejudices without being able to see the racism.
For example, a dear friend of mine was hired into an executive position, but when it came to assigning her an executive parking space, company leaders told her she couldn’t have one up in the front because the business was in an upscale area and they didn’t want her to suffer backlash from people who might be upset. These people didn’t think they were acting in a racist manner; they probably saw themselves as simply acknowledging that racism exists in the community and trying to protect my friend from backlash. What they don’t get is that simply treating her differently because she is black is racial discrimination. But they don’t think it’s racism or discrimination unless it comes from a position of race hatred.
Brad: Right. The people who are unwilling to see the priesthood ban as racist are the people who think that racism is solely a mental phenomenon—that an act is racist only if it carries a mean-spiritedness towards blacks or minorities. This is why when I argue that the ban itself is racist, they ask how I can know that when no one really knows where the ban came from. My response is that it doesn’t matter where it came from—it doesn’t matter even if it came from people who thought that black people were superior—it’s still racist because it discriminates on the basis of race. It is racism no matter what motivates it, and the story that you describe couldn’t be scripted better to show a microcosm of the problem. If we’re not willing to acknowledge that a deeply and transparently racist practice is racist, we are going to create a culture in which people are simply incapable of recognizing the racist behaviors all around them.
Dan: We’ve mentioned the idea that the criterion for an act being racist is the actor’s mental state: if you’re not acting out of malice or animosity, you aren’t being racist. But now we’re constructing racism as discriminatory acts embedded in systems of power and privilege. This approach might give people room to acknowledge that they’re part of a system of power that’s racist without feeling like they are bad themselves. For example, could we say, “Brigham Young was not a bad person. The ban isn’t a reflection of his character, but part of a system of power and storytelling that he inherited”?
Gina: Absolutely. I agree there’s a sense that, “If I think nice thoughts I must be a nice person, therefore I couldn’t possibly be racist.” But here’s an example of how invisible racism can be: White folks have the luxury of choosing whether to interface with black or brown truth. They can engage with it, but they don’t have to, whereas black and brown folk must constantly live with the stresses of surviving in racialized communities and societies. A white person can go their whole life without understanding that basic truth.
Brad: On this question of individual thoughts and motivations versus larger systems and power structures, it is really easy to treat racism as a problem that exists only in the hearts and minds of people. But that’s an unconstructive mindset because it implies that you don’t have to worry about changing how things actually operate. So you can say, “I’m not going to let you park here because you’re black, but I’m not a racist, and this isn’t racism, because I like you and I don’t want you to get hurt.” Your niceness seems to free you from having to confront the systemic racism you are participating in.
Let’s take another step and apply this kind of thinking to Church discourse. Here’s the mainstream script: “Hey, we’re repudiating all the folklore behind the ban; we’re repudiating the racist doctrine; we’re repudiating the racist sentiments and ideas and mythologies and teachings. But we don’t need to repudiate the ban itself because we don’t know where it came from.” To which I reply, “Let’s imagine that the 1978 revelation had only repudiated the racist teachings and folklore but left the ban in place. Are you saying that we wouldn’t have a racism problem in the Church anymore in that case? By refusing to repudiate the ban itself, we are saying that the Church could conceivably still enforce the ban today without being racist.” But of course it would be racist.
Marguerite: Brad, there is a chicken-and-egg issue here. Since there was no big revelation initiating the ban and stating a reason for it, people were forced to make up reasons. So, if in 1978 all that had happened was that the Church had specifically repudiated, say, the three most popular theories justifying the ban, people would have simply started inventing others. They would have come up with additional reasons why black people were singled out for this treatment. The reasons got created because there was a policy that needed explaining. Every theory anyone came up with to explain the ban is contradicted by the core doctrines of the Church. They were grasping at straws to explain the inexplicable. And if the Church had publicly rejected all those theories, as you were imagining, we might have had a 24-hour break from them that day in 1978, but the very next day another theory would have popped up simply because the ban was still in place.
Gina: But who are we talking about when we say “they”? I think the elephant in the room is that “they” happen to be a succession of presidents of the Church, which complicates the question of how much of the ban came from God. It can make us wonder how we are to think about prophetic instruction and revelation when we’re staring at something that feels so theologically out of step.
Brad: And once we commit ourselves to the proposition that racism is a sin, we have to come to terms with the fact that the worst racial sin in our history is not something Brigham Young said, not something Joseph Fielding Smith said, or Bruce R. McConkie, or Alvin Dyer. The worst racial sin in our history—if racism itself is a sin—is the ban: the actual practice of excluding black folks from access to temple ordinances, covenants, and sealings. Everything else is extraneous to that practice.
Gina: Yes, it became systemic.
Dan: But isn’t talking about racism as a system one path toward de-fanging it? This kind of approach depersonalizes it—takes a lot of the emotion out of it, right?
Brad: Absolutely. The problem for me isn’t that our leaders held racist attitudes—I don’t think Brigham Young was any more racist than Abraham Lincoln. Their statements and worldviews and theories aren’t the problem. The problem is what we did collectively as a church—what we permitted ourselves to do—and the terribly harmful, tragic effects these actions had on the lives of Church members, potential Church members, and children of God everywhere.
Gina: When I first read the Church’s online statement regarding racism, I was quite heartened. But then I started to think: Who owns this conversation about racism in the Church? It seems to me that the center of the Church does; and we know what the center of the Church looks like—largely white, largely American, largely male, largely politically conservative. My hope is that we can begin to move questions of race away from the center and toward the “edges” of the Church, asking people of color what their position is and how they would like to see the center change so that these harmful practices don’t continue.
There’s a big difference between moral outrage and practical ethics, and we sometimes miss that in the Church. Unless we learn to see the difference, we won’t ask the most important question: “What do my Christianity and my theology call me to step forward and change?” Without moving the race conversation away from the center, we’ll likely become stuck simply exuding good will without making any actual improvement.
I presume, Marguerite, that they didn’t consult with the Genesis group about how to frame race questions, or how to address class racism?
Marguerite: (Laughing.) No, they didn’t. Although I will tell you, Darius Gray is not kidding when he says that part of the reason the Genesis Group exists is because devout, faithful members of the Church who were descendents of folks with African blood lobbied the Church, crying out, “Tell me what’s wrong with me! Tell me the flaw that is in my soul or in my character!” The Genesis Group did not originate in the center.
Gina: I think we will know that change has really happened in the Church when the center turns outward, when the people on the edges are actually consulted rather than merely spoken to—when the center urges, “Tell me your truth. We need to hear it, because we need to change.”
Dan: A question for any of you: It seems to me that one reason the Church may be shying away from repudiating the ban itself, is that doing so might undermine its members’ faith in prophetic revelation. Agree? Disagree?
Brad: Agree. Some people have responded to my call for contrition and disavowal of the ban by saying basically, “Well I can see why that’s needed in the case of race, but it feels to me like you’re trying to set the stage for doing the same thing for gay rights and women’s issues.” They argue that in order to reconcile themselves with the Church repudiating the ban, people are going to have to re-evaluate—though not necessarily reject—what they believe about the role of prophets. And if they end up being willing to accept the possibility that the presidents of the Church did lead us astray on this particular issue, then they have created a space in which they can scale back their sense of prophetic reliability. This opens up the possibility that other issues we feel strongly about—the ones we tend to use as boundary markers for good standing in the Church—are also subject to change.
Gina: I agree that for many people that would be going down the rabbit hole—pushing dominos over. But it could also start us thinking about what the role of a prophet actually is. Some might decide it’s a prophet’s role to tell us everything—even where to put our potatoes, like Brigham Young did (by the back door next to the brooms). But I think that a prophet’s main responsibility is to point toward Christ. Everything else can go by the wayside, like, “Well, that’s his opinion.” If everything the prophets said was the mind and will of God, they would be God.
Marguerite: Exactly! I always try to tell people, “Look, you need to develop a relationship with Jesus Christ. You need to develop a relationship with God. You need to learn the doctrine, and the doctrine is inclusive, it’s loving. The scripture at the end of 2 Nephi 26 absolutely says that God denies no one. It says: “He denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female.” And it says here specifically that “he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” There is nothing clearer than that, and yet we haven’t gotten it right yet. But we’re working towards it. We need to remind each other: If you’re treating people differently, that’s contradictory to what we’ve already been told. Don’t ask for a prophet to give you new revelation—you’ve already got revelation. How about we read it and understand it?
Then, on the other side of the coin, I worry about people who won’t move toward forgiveness unless the Church issues an apology for all the negative effects of past and present racism. It seems to me that forgiveness is a personal act that occurs only within ourselves. If someone has wronged me, that’s their problem; my job is to let go of that hurt.
Brad: It’s also a distraction to focus on the need, or the lack of need, for an apology because it makes us think that it’s okay to apologize for the effects of an act without actually acknowledging that the act was wrong. The essential thing is that you acknowledge the need for repentance in the first place, that you acknowledge that your act was wrong. And if the Randy Bott debacle and its aftermath have taught us anything, it is that we are not past this issue as a Church.
Dan: For sure.
Brad: This is a source of pain, this is a source of problems, this is still a millstone around our necks. Condemn racism all you want, but if we refuse to admit that the ban itself was wrong, that bespeaks an unwillingness to come to terms with the great evil the ban was in the lives of millions of God’s children. And if we are going to feel and experience and take in the full power of the Atonement as a church, we have to acknowledge that the ban was racist and that it was wrong.
Dan: In one piece you’ve written, you added language about needing to repudiate the ban—disavow it. That’s a lot different from apologizing for the harm it has caused.
Brad: Apology. No apology—the key is contrition. You cannot have the full power of Christ in your life without a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
Marguerite: But the Church is millions of individuals. How does an institution—an institution has no soul, it’s merely the collection of everybody in it—repent? Does the institution itself have to say something? Can an institution actually repent in the way you’re talking about?
Brad: I think it can; I think it has to.
Gina: Me too.
Brad: We’re called to repent.
Marguerite: Yes, we are. But that call is to individuals—the individuals in the Church.
Brad: In the scriptures, churches and nations and entire peoples are called to repentance.
Dan: It’s a both/and, I think. Marguerite, you are emphasizing the individual component, but I do think there’s precedence for calling nations and institutions to repentance. The group must renounce, turn away, flee Babylon, etc. Groups have to reject harmful structures.
Marguerite: I agree that the Church has to take the lead in eradicating erroneous teachings wherever it finds them—and there is a whole bunch of erroneous stuff out there. But the reason the Church needs to do that is because belief in those erroneous teachings cuts people off from God. It allows hatred and racism and discrimination to infect all parts of a person’s life. That’s why I think the Church has to get rid of those teachings. But I’m sitting here as a black person, and I don’t need anybody to come and apologize to me.
Gina: I want an apology.
Dan: Go Gina!
Marguerite: (Smile in voice.) Sorry, Gina!
Brad: If we’re going to say that we need to eradicate false teachings, the false teaching that we need to eradicate most is the one stating that there was nothing wrong with the ban in the first place, that the ban wasn’t racist. If we look at the recent LDS.org statement, the Church still seems to be avoiding the question of there being anything wrong with the ban.
Dan: That element is missing, for sure.
Gina: One thing we might want to mention is that an apology denotes a change of heart; it signals a willingness to do something differently. From that angle, I believe that the institution can and should apologize.
To actually implement that change of heart; however, the Church will need to integrate the experience of the marginalized into the center of the discourse. That’s the only way our church can actually start acting like our theology. I would like to see more self-reflexiveness among whites about their essential place of privilege and about how that blinds them to the plight of brown and black folks. We can continue to work on improving our dispositions and ask people to be more loving, but until there’s systemic change and a re-orientation in our cultural spaces, I’m not sure we’re going to really move forward. We’re just going to circle around the same old problem.
Brad: For my closing point, I would say that even on the individual level, unwillingness to call the ban what is was is a problem. It denotes a willingness to accept a universe in which is it okay to discriminate on the basis of race even in vital things such as temple access, temple covenants, and sealings. I think that the unwillingness of the leaders of the Church to acknowledge the wrongness of the ban can become a stumbling block for individual Church members in their own quest to be like God. Racism is a sin. It’s a sin that has stained us in the past; it continues to stain us in the present; and full acknowledgement of the wrong in all its forms is the only possible path to removing this sin of racism from us, to unstain our garments.
Marguerite: My final note would be to remind anyone listening to this conversation that what you’re hearing are the thoughts and feelings of people who are all currently active members of the LDS Church. We do not come from a position of trying to tear down, but from a position of reflecting on our own experiences, our own perspectives from our own places within the Church. We are offering our own views on the situation that currently exists, including all the pains and problems. We want to move forward to a day when we truly will be one fold with one shepherd. We’ll have to take many steps to get there, and those steps will not always be easy ones—or even clear ones. Nevertheless, we can at least dedicate ourselves to moving in the right direction, and this conversation is a good starting place. Let’s become one fold with one shepherd, using one heart to guide us.
Dan: Preach it!
Gina Colvin lives in New Zealand, where she is a lecturer at the University of Canterbury, specializing in critical pedagogy and cultural studies. She is a bi-racial Maori who teaches her ward’s Gospel Doctrine class. She maintains the blog KiwiMormon.com.
Marguerite Driessen is a former law professor at BYU, where she still teaches “Media Law and Ethics” in the communications department. She is an African-American convert to the LDS Church, joining in 1981, shortly after the end of the priesthood ban. She currently serves as the Relief Society president of the Genesis Group.
Brad Kramer is nearing completion of his doctorate at the University of Michigan in socio-cultural anthropology. He is active in his LDS ward and blogs regularly at ByCommonConsent.com. Many of the points he makes in this podcast discussion can also be found in his post “Pride, Gross Iniquity, and Suffering for One’s Sins,” posted 29 February 2012.