The Mormons Repeat the Errors of History

Last month, a federal judge in Utah ruled that it violated the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection to deny civil marriage rights to same-sex couples. After a few days of joyful chaos in which gay and lesbian couples flocked to county clerks’ offices, Utah state officials managed to convince the Supreme Court to temporarily stay the ruling pending a full hearing by an appeals court. In the meantime, the state announced that they’ll refuse to recognize the more than 1,000 marriages their own clerks had already solemnized.

The initial court decision gave rise to a circus of religious fundamentalist opposition, including one bigot who announced he was going on a hunger strike until Utah state officials agreed to defy the federal courts and the Constitution. (Since same-sex marriages have ceased for now, but in accordance with the regular judicial process, shouldn’t he still be starving himself?) More frighteningly, a group of conservative sheriffs called for “an uprising” against the ruling.

But even as Mormon beliefs were fueling all this impassioned opposition to the progress of human rights, something remarkable happened. The same month that this was going on, the LDS church quietly posted an essay to its official doctrinal website directly addressing its past complicity in racism:

Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks are or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.

Until 1978, the LDS church explicitly barred people of color from being ordained into its priesthood (which is actually more like a confirmation or a bar mitzvah), or even entering its temples. There were various doctrinal explanations for this racism: one was that black people were the descendants of Cain (or Ham), and dark skin was a sign of the hereditary curse on that lineage. Another was that black people were the human spirits who were “less valiant” in the heavenly war against Satan that Mormons believe happened in the “pre-existence”. There are also verses in the Book of Mormon in which God curses sinners by turning their skin black (which makes them “loathsome” to all good, fair-skinned people), and forbids interracial marriage with those so cursed:

“And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.

And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.

And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done.”

—2 Nephi 5:21-23

But as I said, these racist rules were repealed in 1978, supposedly in response to a divine revelation to church leadership. Ever since then, there have been sporadic calls for a formal repudiation, and that’s what the December announcement seems to be.

So, one of the very rare occasions where I’ll offer unqualified praise to a religious organization: the LDS church did the right thing by repudiating the racism of its founders. Granted, this may have been a strategic move to increase Mormonism’s appeal in countries where people of color are the majority; but even if it’s the politic thing to do, it’s still the right one. It’s very rare for a church to admit its past errors as openly as this, which makes this statement all the more praiseworthy.

The problem, though, is that the church leadership clearly hasn’t learned a lesson from this mistake. In their rigid opposition to marriage equality, they’re committing the same error all over again: reinforcing popular prejudice by lending it the authority of dogma, invoking religious beliefs as justification for treating one group of people as less human, less deserving of equal rights than others. Although they acknowledged their past wrong, they’re still acting as if it were a unique, sui generis moral failing, and refusing to see the modern parallel unfolding before their eyes.

Whether it’s their resistance to the Utah ruling, or their support for Proposition 8 in California, or their ongoing anti-gay lobbying throughout the U.S., the LDS church has once again placed itself on the wrong side of history, and will once again have to answer for it, probably sooner than they think. As I said, it’s praiseworthy of them to repudiate their past errors. But it would be far better if their contrition wasn’t strictly backward-looking; if they could draw a lesson from it that guides their future actions, and stop defending invidious bigotry no matter what form it may take.

Image credit: Ricardo630, released under CC BY-SA 2.5 license; via Wikimedia Commons

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  • Steve Bowen

    They’ll be approving of polygamy next, mark my words.

  • JohnH2

    What exactly do you mean ‘approving’? Elder Oaks and Elder Nelson are both polygamous due to their first wife dying and they remarrying but it is illegal to practice polygamy with both wives being alive and the LDS church is not pushing for its legalization.

  • skyblue

    I think it’s also important to note that the 1978 revelation didn’t grant black people the priesthood, only black men. Black women, like all women, are still to this day prohibited from being ordained to the priesthood. Perhaps that’s another area where there will be changes in the future.

  • Crimson

    The longer they keep up that kind of BS, the better it is for everyone in the long run as they alienate anyone willing to stand up for themselves.

  • Steve Bowen

    Irony dude :)

  • smrnda

    Something I notice is that anti-GLTBQ bigots always try to argue that anti-GLTBQ bigotry is *totally different* from racism, therefore yes, racism was wrong, history has spoken, but at some indefinite point in the future everybody will go back to being anti-GLTBQ but this will not be ignorance, but enlightenment.

    That’s kind not going to happen. I suspect opinions changed so quickly with same sex marriage because during the 20th century, many prejudices declined and everybody can look and see how bad the arguments in favor of bigotry really were. The arguments against GLTBQ people are complete and utter bollocks, and about everybody can see this whose head isn’t in the sand, or people who have strongly committed to sticking with their original positions who see changing their minds as a sign of weakness. The LDS church might never change, but I suspect if it does, it will be decades after anti-GLTBQ prejudice is something only a declining minority of people believe in anyway.

  • John

    Specifically, the slippery-slope fallacy popular among Christians that gay marriage will lead to polygamy (among other things).

  • JohnH2

    The hunger striker ate pizza after the Supreme Court stayed the ruling. I do wonder what he will do in a year or so when the cases gets to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court overturns all such bans on Gay marriage (which it seems they will assuming they are consistent).

  • $23022903

    yes, but such ideas are not foreign to most of christianity so it’s not much of a liability.

  • calabiyau

    Is it fairly easy for Mormon theology to change the relationships comprising the divine family? First Joseph Smith believed in a fairly trinitarian view, then the Godhead was comprised of 3 separate beings. Then we began to believe that God was once a man who superevolved into a God. Then God was revealed to be married to a spouse which added 4 into the Godhead God the Father, Goddess the Mother, the divine Son, and the Holy Ghost. Then after the 1850′s God was viewed as most definitely having a polygamous family of wives, and Jesus also was a polygamist married to Mary Magdalene and Martha. After 1904, God now has a monogamous relationship with his wife. After 1978 it was accepted that God may have married a beautiful african woman and taken her to the temple for an eternal sealing while living out his life in mortality. Then most recently in 2006 after the DaVinci Code popularity gave a scare that Jesus Christ being married was doctrinal, Dale Bills official spokesperson for the church declared, “The belief that Christ was married has never been official church doctrine. It is neither sanctioned nor taught by the church.” What will the next evolution be?

  • Y. A. Warren

    It is so easy to solve this issue. “Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (the legal right and responsibility to create contracts in all domestic partnerships); and “unto ‘God’ the things that are ‘God’s’ ” (the right to put religious restrictions on what is “blessed” within the boundaries of the churches).

    The churches have no moral courage, as they refuse to stand up for their beliefs without pressure for political bodies to add the threat of civil punishment onto their empty threats of eternal damnation. What hypocrisy! Over the course of history, the churches have bowed to politics, rather than the other way around. This is why “Christianity” doesn’t even resemble the path of Jesus, the joyful Jew.