Mormons adopted the language of race and ethnicity to describe themselves from the very early days of the church. This post examines the rhetoric of race in Mormonism and compares it with that of early Christianity. It is inspired by Denise Buell’s amazing book, Why This New Race?, which looks at “ethnic reasoning” in early Christianity. In Mormonism, I see a similar dynamic, though different in some key respects, in the process of describing and creating a new people.
Up to this day, many people still see Christianity as a universalistic religion and Judaism as a particularistic religion. Christianity’s success is credited with its ability to apply to all peoples. Judaism “failed” because it was ethnically exclusivistic. What Buell did was to look at the rhetoric of race and ethnicity in early Christianity. The early Christians saw themselves as a new “race,” in the same category as Romans, Greeks, and Jews, only their citizenship was in heaven. As a claim to a “universal” race, it engaged in the same sorts of “particularistic” exclusionary practices as any other ethnicity. Her critique is that this new universal is simply another particular and that the claims to universalism always involve exclusion.
While this critique is certainly important for the study of early Christianity, in many ways it applies to Latter-day Saints( though we are more comfortable with being labeled “exclusionary”). However, Buell’s argument also tells us a lot more about Mormonism. Mormons claim lineage (literal, adoptive, symbolic, blah, blah, blah) with Israel which establishes them as a distinctive people. In some versions of this, the blood of the baptized member is said to change. In other cases, the blood of the investigator is activated and the ancient kinship bonds are rekindled when the spirit is felt, so that only those literal descendants are gathered again to the family. This diffuse blood was always seen as multi-racial biologically, but all members of the church belonged to the true family of Israel.
The rhetoric of racial unity in Mormonism has died down in recent decades, perhaps as the result of the power scientific discourses of race which may problematize Mormon theories of kinship (there is a lively critique of the biological view of race as well). The result, however, is that biological views of race become the discourse of race in the church, which means that the exclusionary language of that discourse can divide the membership. Yet, our own past exclusionary practice of denying those of African descent membership in the people of Israel reminds us that our rhetoric of universalism rings hollow. Nevertheless, as we have moved away from being a race, to being simply a religion like most others should cause us to reflect on this event. Is one model more effective than another? Should we continue to be a race of Mormons, or should we be just a religion?