Why I Remained Loyal to a “Racist Church”

In a widely publicized encounter a day or two ago, a youngish Ron Paul supporter in Wisconsin confronted Mitt Romney with an arguably racist passage from the Book of Mormon, and demanded to know whether Governor Romney considered interracial marriage a “sin.”

Yeah Samake
Candidate for the Presidency of Mali, in West Africa
Mormon Convert

As I understand it, Mr. Romney said No.  He doesn’t consider interracial marriage a sin.

And, in that, he’s right.  Mormon doctrine doesn’t label interracial marriage “sinful.”

I myself, as a local Church leader, have sent several interracial couples to the temple for marriage.  I was delighted to do so, and I’ve heard no reports from any of them about “resistance” at the temple or anything of that kind.

That said, during the days of the pre-1978 ban on ordaining black men to the priesthood, the marriage of a priesthood holder to a black woman or of a white woman to a black man would have had obvious priesthood-related implications for the children of such a marriage, and there are a handful of nineteenth-century statements on the subject (very closely parallel to certain Hebrew-Biblical statements about marriage outside the Israelite covenant) that make for pretty uncomfortable reading in the twenty-first century.

Gladys Knight
Soul Singer and Mormon Convert

And, it must also be said, there have been some statements from Church leaders — not so much recently as a few decades (or more) in the past — advising against interracial and interethnic marriages.  The First Presidency of the Church issued such a statement, in fact, shortly after the 1978 revelation granting the priesthood to men of Black African descent.

But did that statement call such marriages “sin”? 

No, it didn’t.

And interracial marriages have surely been performed by the thousands in the temples of the Church.

The First Presidency advised against them for very realistic reasons:  Every marriage is a clash of cultures, even when the two marriage partners come from quite similar backgrounds.  My wife, for example, hangs shirts the wrong direction in the closet, finds some of my favorite foods disgusting, isn’t enthusiastic about all the same activities that I am, and — if you can believe this — sometimes calls the glove compartment of a car a “cowl pocket.”  (For our first three decades of marriage or so, I actually thought she was saying “cow pocket,” which was even more mystifying.)  And that’s just for starters.

Elder Joseph W. Sitati
First Quorum of the Seventy,
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

One winter before my marriage, I dated a German girl pretty seriously.  One of the points of tension between us, though, was that she vocally regarded many American Christmas customs as complete kitsch, which, over time, I found surprisingly irritating.

My point is that there will always be frictions between spouses, especially in the first years, but that, with greater cultural differences, those frictions are liable to become even worse.  They need not prove fatal to a marriage, of course, and most often don’t.  But to pretend that such factors don’t exist is simply foolish and naïve.  And alerting a young intercultural couple to them is good pre-marital counseling, in my judgment, not an accusation of “sin.”  Such couples are, though, entirely free to move forward if they so choose.  And may the Lord bless them.

Moreover — and here I have to be very careful in what I say, because there will be some who are very eager to be offended and indignant — children of interracial marriages sometimes have special challenges in society, and, not infrequently, with members of their extended families.  Mercifully, this is far, far less of a problem in 2012 than it was thirty-four years ago, in 1978, when that First Presidency advice was given.  I don’t expect another such statement to come from Church leadership any time soon.  The obstacles that interracial couples face today are much less intimidating than they were a generation or two back.

Elder Helvécio Martins (d. 2005)
Formerly of the Second Quorum of the Seventy,
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The more fundamental question that is being posed in some quarters regarding Mitt Romney, however — I don’t know that it’s yet been put directly to him, but I rather expect that it will be, sooner or later — is how he could have remained a dedicated member of, and even proselytized on behalf of, a “racist church.”  He was roughly thirty-one years old when the revelation on priesthood was received.  A grown adult with two professional degrees from Harvard.

Well, the same question could also be posed to me — I was twenty-five years old when the revelation was received, and had also served as a missionary for the Church in Europe — so I’m going to make a preliminary attempt to answer it.  I doubt that Governor Romney’s response would be substantially different from mine.

The principal reason is that I accepted (and still accept) the prophetic claims and authority of Joseph Smith and his successors.  I believe Mormonism to be true.  I believe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be God’s true, restored, authorized church.  It’s as simple as that.

Mia Love
Mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah
Current Congressional Candidate
Mormon Convert

And my commitment to Mormonism and to the Church entailed that I accept the whole thing, not just cherry-picking the parts that most appealed to me.  If the leaders of the Church were really prophets who spoke for the Lord, then speaking against them on any significant matter was problematic.

A non-Mormon example may illuminate the logic a bit:  I’ve read that Pope Paul VI wanted to loosen the Catholic position on contraception, and that the experts to whom he went for advice on the matter counseled him to do so.  In the end, though, because he believed in and respected the authority of his predecessors in the papacy, he felt that he simply couldn’t, and he issued the controversial 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed traditional Catholic teachings on the topic. 

Obviously, I’m not a Catholic, and I don’t feel myself bound by the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church.  But I understand his reasoning.  I’m a believing Mormon, and I do accept the teaching authority of the men who lead the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, believing them to be prophets, seers, and revelators.

I’ve always been fond of an exchange between Sir Thomas More and his son-in-law William Roper, in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons:

William Roper:  So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More:  Yes!  What would you do?  Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper:  Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More:  Oh?  And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?  This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s!  And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?  Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

What am I getting at here?  Maybe it’s a bit obscure.  I’ve just always liked that passage.  But I’ll try to explain:

I mean to say that cutting down the authority of the Church, even to do something seemingly good, would have seemed to me an overall evil.  (Abraham Lincoln famously said that, if he had to maintain slavery in order to save the Union, he would do it, much as he despised slavery.)   For me, to have rejected the prophetic authority of Church leaders over the issue of blacks and the priesthood would have been to reject it altogether, which would have been to give up my fundamental religious beliefs in their entirety.

It would have been a price that I was not willing to pay.

Eldredge Cleaver (d. 1998)
Writer, Political Activist, and Mormon Convert

In an account given at John 6:67-69, Jesus has just said some rather disturbing things, and many of his disciples turn away from him:

“Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?  Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.  And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.”

That’s the way I felt, in relationship to my belief in the Church as a whole, about the Church’s policy of excluding blacks from the priesthood.  I wasn’t thrilled about it.  Not even close.  I doubt that I was atypical; I was a committed Latter-day Saint in spite of the priesthood ban rather than because of it.  But I didn’t and don’t know that the ban was a result of human racism rather than something willed (or at least permitted) for some mysterious and unfathomable reason by God, and I felt as President Spencer W. Kimball did: A revelation would be required to change the policy.  And when that revelation came in 1978, I was overjoyed.

Some have suggested that being an active and committed member of the Church prior to 1978 was more or less equivalent to being an active and committed member of the Ku Klux Klan.  But this is flatly wrong, wildly unjust, and terribly misleading.

The fundamental raison d’être of the KKK was, obviously, racism and bigotry.  But that was scarcely true of pre-1978 Mormonism.  For good or ill, blacks were rarely discussed in Mormon circles in those days.  Not because they were beneath contempt or despised, but simply because there were lots and lots of other pressing topics.  The subject came up when the policy of priesthood exclusion was raised (generally by critics or by the media), but that policy was something that had been received from earlier generations.  We didn’t define ourselves as a “non-black” church.  The ban on black ordination was, theologically speaking, a tertiary issue, and peripheral, not fundamental, to our doctrine.  Uncomfortable for many of us, but not within our power to change.

Darius Gray
Speaker and Writer
Mormon Convert

In the late 1960s, the prominent sociologist of religion Armand L. Mauss, who happened to be a Mormon himself, published an important article entitled “Mormonism and the Negro: Faith, Folklore, and Civil Rights,” Dialogue 2/4 (Winter 1967): 19-39.  In it, on the basis of survey data, he argued persuasively that Latter-day Saints were no more (and, unfortunately, no less) racist than Americans of other faiths but of similar socio-economic, rural/urban, and educational backgrounds.  (I doubt that a similar survey of the membership of the KKK would have produced analogous results.)

In other words, to be very direct, the uniquely Mormon policy of priesthood exclusion in effect during my youth and early adulthood (and during Mitt Romney’s youth and early adulthood) did not seem to reflect uniquely Mormon racism.

One can debate the historical origins of the policy, and there is no question that a few statements from certain nineteenth-century Mormon leaders are hair-curlingly racist by today’s standards, but there seems simply no evidence that the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was significantly more racist than were, say, contemporary members of the Southern Baptist Convention or the Roman Catholic Church.

Ahmad S. Corbitt
Director, New York Office of Public and International Affairs,
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

And, although I have only impressions and anecdotes to back me up, I suspect that Latter-day Saints today, since the 1978 revelation, are, by and large, less inclined to racism than the members of many churches.  (It has been said that the most segregated hour in America comes on Sunday mornings, when blacks file off to historically black churches and whites head off to predominantly white ones — and, for that matter, Koreans and Chinese and Hispanics gather in their own ethnically-defined congregations.  But Latter-day Saint congregations are, overwhelmingly, defined solely on the basis of geography, and the Mormon net takes in whoever lives in the area.)

What I’m saying is pretty much this:  Attempts to depict me, Mitt Romney, and the many other Mormons of our generation as racists, or even as favoring racism, are misguided and unjust.  Our commitment to Mormonism came from other sources, was motivated by entirely different factors.  Yes, that commitment also entailed acceptance of a racial policy, from whatever source it came, that can very easily be depicted as racist.  But virtually all of us rejoiced to see it come to an end.

“And he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33).

  • Jules

    Stockholm Syndrome is real.

    “In other words, to be very direct, the uniquely Mormon policy of priesthood exclusion in effect during my youth and early adulthood (and during Mitt Romney’s youth and early adulthood) did not seem to reflect uniquely Mormon racism.”

    But racism nonetheless. And racism that has never been expressly stated as not divinely-inspired. I know of no God that has ever endorsed ANY kind of racism. (Since race is a silly, human concept to begin with.) Anyone who claims a church that has ANY policies around race (as opposed to deeds) is garbage.

  • Kiwi57

    @Jules:
    “Stockholm Syndrome is real.”

    I don’t doubt it, but how is that relevant to anything in the article?

    I have noticed a rather popular tendency in online discussions to talk in cliches and sound-bites that provide a substitute for thought. Neither Helvecio Martins, Eldridge Cleaver, Gladys Knight nor any other of the people featured in the article were kidnapped, held against their will, or subjected to any of the stressors that are associated with Stockholm Syndrome. Nor have any of them been diagnosed with any kind of post-traumatic stress in connection with their membership in the Church of Jesus Christ.

    @Jules:
    “Anyone who claims a church that has ANY policies around race (as opposed to deeds) is garbage.”

    Whether the historical Priesthood ban was “racist” is a question worth discussing, but it is not relevant to the truth claims of the Church.

    Nor to the character of those who accept those truth claims.

    Just so you know.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The Mormon views on “race” never were the simplistic concept of “white supremacy.” One of the first formal missionary efforts by the Mormons was to the American Indian tribes in eastern Kansas in 1830. Within 20 years, even as the Mormons were gathering people from Britain and Europe to their new refuge in the west, they were also fully engaged in converting Hawaiians and building the Mormon Polynesian community that became Laie, the home of the first temple outside North America in 1919, and eventually BYU Hawaii. Among the early missionaries to Hawaii were George Q. Cannon, and young Joseph F. Smith, future church president. In 1901, Heber J. Grant, another future church president, opened the mission in Japan. The mission was reopened after World War II, and my father served a mission there in 1949-1952, as I did in 1969-1971. Missionaries began baptizing in Latin America, including people with American Indian ancestry, in the late 1800s.

    So the Mormons were actively recruiting, baptizing and ordaining Polynesians, American Indians, and Asians for 70 to 120 years before 1978, despite the deep prejudices that many other Americans held toward such people. And they willingly baptized blacks who investgated the Church and asked to be baptized. I helped teach a black paratrooper in Colorado Springs who was baptized in 1974. He told me he had visited many churches in that city, but the Mormons were the first congregation that made him feel welcome. Apparently he did not sense any racial animosity from us. Whatever the odd origins of the priesthood restriction pokicy, it did not reflect racial animus among the membership in 1978. Everyone I knew was happy to be relieved of the burden of of a rule that was so different from the way every other racial minority (including my own Japanese American family) was able to participate in the church.

    Based on one national survey (not conducted by the Church) about 200,000 Mormons in the US are black. Most of the Mormons in Africa, 400,000 strong, are black. And there are more black Mormons in Brazil, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. In 35 years, that is a far greater rate if growth than the entire Church experienced in its first 35 years of existence, to 1865. It seems likely that the total black membership worldwide will be approaching two million by 2030. The total Church membership in 1978 was about three million.

  • Edward Bailey

    Elijah Abel was the first black ordained an Elder in 1836. His grandson was also ordained an Elder in Ogden utah in 1935. Blacks are the chosen people of God, with many having the blessing of the lineage of Ephraim, and some being declared of the lineage of other lost tribes. There are also some black Lembda and Falashic jews in Zimbabwe which have the Cohen haplotype dna markers which would grant then legal rights to the office or presidency of the high priesthood with rights to act in the office of Bishop without counselors. The church recently in 2012 issued an official statement which condemned and repudiated the racist statements from the LDS prophets of the past including the 1949 first presidency statement


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