On the chance that you missed it, at least two university professors invoked Martin Luther King Jr in the last few days in order to criticize the president. Given the national holiday, the King-Obama association that had already been established, and the president’s use of King’s Bible for his second inauguration, this is not altogether surprising.
What is perhaps surprising is that both professors did so from quite different points of view, which of course are hardly the only points of view. I happen to be a member of the same faith tradition as one of the professors, and it is his point of view that I want to focus on, that is, his point of view, not him or what he may represent for certain groups of church members and former members.
I want to focus on it in order to arrive at a theological question that I think is important for all Mormons to consider, whatever our different political leanings may be. I am not seeking to perpetuate intra-Mormon dispute as an end in and of itself, much less do I aim at arguing a point so as to appear to win. I feel strongly enough to have written something, but I have tried not to allow emotion to over-influence my writing. I have also tried to use a number of qualifiers, in the hopes of avoiding the possibility of misrepresentation.
For Cornel West, it was upsetting that the president used Martin Luther King’s Bible, as the president is, in West’s recent words, a “Republican in blackface,” out of step with King’s speeches, which the president has referenced in his own.
For Daniel Peterson, the president’s “vaunted oratorical skills pale into insignificance alongside Dr. King’s.” If ‘pale’ was not intentionally loaded with double meaning here, and it easily may not be, Peterson goes on to state: “I’m pleased (it’s the only substantial thing about his presidency that pleases me) that America has broken the color barrier in electing a black president. (Well, 50% black, anyway.)”
Despite whatever superficial and rhetorical similarities there are between them, however, the criticisms function entirely separately. For West, it is the president’s policies that are too ‘white;’ West calls him “my dear brother,” at the same time suggesting that the president is not one of Martin Luther King’s ‘people:’
I got upset [about the president’s use of King’s Bible] because you don’t play with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and you don’t play with his people. By ‘his people’ I mean people of good conscience, fundamentally committed to peace, and truth, and justice; and especially the Black tradition that produced it.
There is some ambiguity in West’s definition of King’s ‘people,’ i.e., “and especially the Black tradition that produced it,” the antecedent of ‘it’ being unclear, but it is clear enough that he does not limit King’s ‘people’ to race.
Whereas for Peterson, it seems that racially the president is only “50% black,” at least potentially implying that “the color barrier” has only been half broken.
If it were not for other things that Peterson has to say about Civil Rights, this potential implication might not be eye-catching. In his blog post meant to honor King on Monday, in the comments there, and in the follow-up post and comments, he seems to be saying that discrimination should not (have) be(en) regulated against but that hopefully it would (have) be(en) corrected through market forces.
When I first read his post on the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr Day this week, I thought of an earlier post he had written about a year ago, as one of his colleagues was in some trouble for statements regarding why there was a priesthood ban. Peterson himself has not connected the posts as far as I know, but I have brought them together. In this earlier post, entitled “An Unfortunate Attempt to Explain the Pre-1978 Priesthood Ban,” Peterson argued from scripture that “God has always discriminated with regard to priesthood … But we don’t know why.”
God discriminates then, according to Peterson, at least when it comes to priesthood and race as well as gender. Though I want to be careful not to conflate Peterson’s earlier blog post on the priesthood ban with his post on Monday so entirely as to result in distortion, it would seem that he does not read the same scriptures as found in Martin Luther King’s Bible, the one that Cornel West is upset about the president using.
If they are not the same, the reason for the different scriptures of a Martin Luther King or a Cornel West and a Daniel Peterson may not amount to our LDS extra-biblical canon. How was King able to look at the Bible and see equality, likewise West, albeit his own version, while Peterson apparently looks at it and sees a God who discriminates?
I would contend that both equality and discrimination are there in scripture. But the issue of God’s discrimination per se has to do with the passages we ourselves select; it has to do with whether we ourselves choose to read them as entirely divine or also at least partly human texts; and it has to do with when we ourselves may or may not make that choice to read them as at least partly human texts.
In other words, I don’t think the best answer is: we don’t know why God discriminates.
The question is: what will we choose, a God who discriminates or not? And if we choose one who does, how will we know when God’s discrimination in scripture is or isn’t a product of the human beings, like us, who recorded and wrote it?