Are Mormons Racists?

Despite his completely unblemished personal record on race relations, it’s become clear that some want answers from Mitt Romney regarding the racial stances of the LDS Church. Romney will never give such answers, nor should he. The focus by some on the question of Mormon racism is an attempt to smear a good, progressive, modern man with a few quotations and stories from others of his faith, a means of slurring-by-association that should not be accepted. I’ve noted before that there’s not a hint of any basis on which to allege that Mitt Romney is himself a racist, and that should end the inquiry. Still, I’ve seen a number of sensible people who seem to agree with the less-sensible Mssrs. Hitchens and O’Donnell, that Romney ought to answer these questions. So it’s worth delving into the topic in order to kill the continuing chatter about Mormon “racism.”

Two threshold questions ought to be raised before delving into the history. First, is there any reason to believe that the present-day Mormon Church is racist today? Second, is there any reason to tie Mitt Romney to any charge of Mormon racism? The answer to both questions is an unqualified “NO”. The modern day Mormon Church is a huge global organization, with members representing every race, and congregations in approximately 170 countries. Many hundreds of thousands of Latter-day Saints are black, living in places like Ghana, Nigeria, Brazil, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. I am told that Brigham Young University, owned by the LDS Church, is the most diverse university in the country, measured by the number of nationalities represented there (I have seen this claim myself but cannot find documentation. If you can, send it to me). There is nothing preached in the Church that approaches, justifies, or encourages racist thought. Indeed, national polling data in recent times has shown that Mormons are actually less likely than other Americans to hold racist attitudes. Anyone wishing to smear the LDS Church with claims of present-day racism simply does not know the LDS Church. (Further points in this regard are offered in a thoughtful post at ColTakashi).

As for Romney, he comes from a racially progressive family that championed civil rights. Mitt’s father George marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. at a time when such actions were not uncontroversial in the Republican party, and Mitt celebrated the LDS Church’s reversal of its policy against black priests. Romney has a pristine record on race relations, and so questions regarding the racial stances of his faith should remain just that- targeted at his faith, not him. So, on to the larger question regarding Mormonism and race:

The Priesthood Ban

It’s important to understand what the LDS Church’s Priesthood ban entails, beginning with an understanding of the Mormon concept of Priesthood. In Mormonism, the Priesthood is authority to act in a position of religious leadership– the power to act on behalf of God. There is no professional clergy, so no careers are at stake in who may and may not hold the Priesthood. What is at stake in withholding the Priesthood is the chance to perform ‘ordinances’ (i.e., baptism, blessing of the bread and water, etc.), the ability to lead others in services, with the blessings Mormons believe attend such activities.

For Mormons, the above benefits are enormously important, so the denial of such opportunities cannot be dismissed. However, the fact remains that the list of opportunities denied to blacks was limited in scope. At all times in LDS history, blacks have been allowed to attend LDS Church services anywhere they wished– a practice that was radically progressive in manifest destiny America– and were allowed to take communion, hear the word, and visit with all other saints. There has never been any such thing as official Mormon segregation. This stands in stark contrast to many Protestant denominations throughout American history. In this sense, the LDS Church for much of its history was one of the most racially progressive of American churches.

There is great debate within the LDS Church about how and why the Priesthood ban was established. There is some consensus among scholars that Joseph Smith, the religion’s founder, had little to do with it. Smith was something of a radical, untouched by many of the pervasive prejudices of his day. He strove for abolition (which was a central plank in his presidential campaign) and preached justice and equality. Further, contra the crazed finger-pointing of Lawrence O’Donnell, Joseph Smith never advocated for slavery, and the LDS Church has never at any time supported slavery. In fact, most Mormons strongly opposed slavery, which was one of the reasons they were violently expelled from the state of Missouri when attempting to settle there.

Brigham Young, Smith’s successor, does not appear to have been as free of prejudice as was Smith. Young preached segregation, abhorred interracial marriage, and even made doctrinal speculations justifying these ideas. Brigham Young was far from exceptional in terms of his racial ideas in mid-1800’s America (one need not look far for hateful statements by many Protestant leaders of the same period). The difficulty for Mormons is not that a leader of the Church had racist notions typical of his time, but that the man holding those beliefs was and is viewed within the LDS Church as a prophet. This paradox remains troubling to many Latter-day Saints today, with the implicit conclusion being that despite his prophetic status (evidenced by his leadership and foresight in leading the young Church to Utah and establishing a homeland there), Young remained imperfect and a product of his time, though a somewhat extraordinary one.

At any rate, the policy of denying the Priesthood to blacks came into being in the years Young led the Church, and continued with his successors. This development is anomalous in Mormon history, given that most major practices– especially those touching on the Priesthood– are established only by revelation. In other words, when a major practice or doctrine is implemented in the Mormon Church, it is done by the announcement of the Prophet or the collective leadership of the Church, with the explicit or implicit claim that the change comes as a result of direct revelation from God, or at least under his inspired direction. No such announcement was ever made regarding the Priesthood ban.

As the Church grew in Utah through the early 1900’s, it had little outside impetus to reconsider the Priesthood ban, as it remained a fairly insular, Western community with little to no contact with blacks. At that time, no other religion in America ordained blacks to the Priesthood, except for churches set up specifically for black congregations. The Church’s missionary efforts remained focused on Europe, where it had had the most success. This began to change in the mid-20th century. In the 1950’s, the opportunity arose to think more deeply about the policy as the Church expanded globally. Curious Africans sought out literature regarding Mormonism, inspiring the President at the time, David O. McKay, to make the policy a matter of questioning and prayer. Upon some reflection, he told colleagues that he would have liked to remove the ban, but felt bound not to do so until he could ascertain the Lord’s will on the question.

It is important to note that these intentions came into being well before significant social or political pressure was leveled at the Church on the question.The hesitancy of President McKay gives rise to the crux of the issue. The conservative approach of LDS leadership in making changes set it apart from the other churches that rapidly changed their racial practices in the civil rights era of the 1960’s and 70’s. President McKay, who led the Church during much of this time, is on record as having sought permission from God to make a change, and having yearned for authority to do so. However, his role as Prophet compelled him to do nothing affecting the longstanding practices of the Church on his own authority. While the Heavens remained silent, he felt his hands were tied.

For reasons unknown, President McKay never felt he received the permission he sought, despite his fervent requests. However, he still felt comfortable implementing several incremental changes to bring the Church in line with his progressive thinking. For example, the question of exactly who the Priesthood ban affected arose as the Church spread into South America and the Pacific Islands. Church missionaries would return from these areas reporting the difficulty of discerning who was eligible to hold the Priesthood and who wasn’t, given the many different points on the racial spectrum in those areas. In every case where McKay felt there was some gray area, he erred on the side of liberalizing the policy. Pacific islanders, even those who were thought to be of black ancestry, were permitted the full blessings of the Church, as were Australian aborigines, and missions and branches were permitted in West Africa and Brazil, where the painful line-drawing problems continued.

The Civil Rights era continued in the U.S., turning the LDS Church by comparison from a somewhat racially progressive body to a church that lagged behind its peers on matters of race., in just a few decades. Though critics today (including Hitchens) look back at the 1978 change as an adaptation based on political expediency, there are strong arguments against this conclusion. Well before 1978, much of the leadership and membership of the Church found the Priesthood ban disturbing and wished for a change. External and internal pressure had been mounting from the 60’s, giving many opportunities to change the policy before the Church ever became exceptional for its racial policy. It was far from politically helpful to wait as long as the Church did.The Church waited until 1978 because of its leaders’ belief that it must be molded directly by God or not at all. The Church made its change in 1978, when President Spencer W. Kimball announced receipt of a revelation, after much petitioning of God by himself and his colleagues. The text of this announcement is worth reading, as it also suggests much more at work than political expediency.

In short, the LDS Church’s conversion to complete racial openness took place at a time when huge numbers of Southern churches remained segregated, and only a decade or so after many American institutions became more racially open-minded. Seen from today, this delay may look stubborn, and given the many lives affected in those extra ten years or so, it clearly caused much heartache. But the sincere desire for change held by many church leaders and members at the time (including, by all reports, the Romney family), combined with their devout belief that they could not change the Church on their own say-so, gives at least some context to the delay.

Only the actual ban prohibiting blacks from holding the Priesthood was the official policy of the Church. No doctrine or theology on the topic was ever officially espoused. Sadly, during the time of the ban, some within the Church- including those in leadership positions- found it convenient to concoct theories justifying the ban, many of which contrived doctrinal reasons to disparage the black race. None of these speculations was ever adopted by the Church. However, these notions clearly did damage, as many within the Church came to accept them as justifying the ban. Specifically, the theory that black people bore the “curse of Cain”– a notion invented by Protestants long before the rise of Mormonism, and widespread among Protestant denominations– found a place within Mormonism as well. That LDS leadership permitted these ideas to circulate within the Church has been controversial, but likely reflects simply their own inability to articulate the reason for the ban in the first place, given its uncertain origins.

In 2007, these racist speculations have long been largely eliminated from the membership of the Church. Today, there is no reason to believe that Mormons hold any more racist beliefs than those of any other American faith. A history of racism is the shared burden of all Americans, one specifically heavy for those belonging to religious groups that were complicit in the perpetuation of racist theologies. The LDS Church shares in this past, having grown from the same soil that nourished many other denominations before it. Modern-day Mormons confront issues such as this with faith in their Church but also with confusion over the dissonance between the claims of social justice and governing Church policy. The salutary result is a Church that continues to mature and a membership that is becoming more willing to face complexity in the context of their faith.

In the last decades, the LDS Church’s record of openness in embracing people of all races is second to none. No one can justify the denial of civil rights to any person on the basis of Mormon theology. And the Church’s actual practices are racially progressive and unerringly tolerant—and have been substantially so for 30 years now.

In short, the LDS Church has moved beyond its period of racial discrimination, as have many, many other American institutions and religions. It is surprising that the Mormon Church has come in for such focused criticism given that it lagged the rest of mainstream America by only a few years in making such adaptations. Regardless, to attenuate the criticism by yet another step, and hold Mitt Romney responsible for the past history of his Church, in spite of his actual record on race relations, looks more like a vendetta than an actual critique.

UPDATE: Steven Swint at Dry Fly Politics has a post up on similar themes, including definitive statements by Joseph Smith and current LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley on issues of race. Worth reading.