I Think I’m In The Wrong Room


I prepared my conference paper with a particular audience in mind—the one I know: Mormons, specifically academic Mormons. The conference was the American Academy of Religion, Seattle, and I (so I thought) would be part of the Mormon contingent. I went to my session with Blair Hodges, who was also set to present. As my readers would expect, I had prepared a presentation on race and Mormonism—specifically what we mean by the recent Church statement, “We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.”

It was clear to me that more conversation needed to happen about how encompassing the word “racism” was. My friend, the inimitable historian Jim Allen, had suggested at a Mormon History Association meeting that surely the statement indicated that Mormons no longer embraced the “curse of Cain” idea, or the “Blacks did something wrong in the pre-existence” one.

I was certain, however–mostly through anecdotal evidence–that many Latter-day Saints defined racism in ways that excluded them from indictment, even if they still clung to old ideas. Racists might lynch, might use the “n” word, might segregate, but “we” don’t do that. That would be racist. But the “curse of Cain”? Well, didn’t God ordain that?

I periodically look at a particular website to measure church statements, waiting for a time when the site will have to be dismantled because it is no longer consistent with current Mormon teachings. I fully believe that day is near. But it hasn’t come yet. So, on May 5th, I was at AAR to further the conversation. I was ready to talk about what BYU Religion professor Randy Bott had said in 2012—quoted by Jason Horowitz in the Washington Post:

“God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people “all that he seeth fit.” Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.

The Mormons from other universities would understand the context. Perhaps they would smile dimly and shake their heads at the familiar foolishness.

It wasn’t until two speakers had given their presentations that I realized I was in the wrong session. I was not with other Mormons. I was in a section called “Religion and Ethics.” The other presenters and most audience members would not know LDS history, and they certainly would not be conversant with “Bott-gate.”

I had prepared an amusing alternate history, imagining that Joseph Smith’s evolved views of race had undergone further evolution rather than being sent into reverse with Brigham Young’s declaration that “If no prophet has said it before, I say it: The seed of Cain are not entitled to the priesthood.” (See here for more information.) I had expected that my audience would chuckle at the “what might have been” scenarios:

Jane James and her children stay in the Church. Jane becomes a counselor in the General Primary Association and all LDS children learn “This Little Light of Mine.” (Jane’s last Mormon descendant left the Church in 1980. She refused to go to the temple, saying, “I’m the same today as I was yesterday.”

Green Flake becomes a counselor to the mission president in Idaho. (He was described by Idaho Mormon Oz Call as “the best damn missionary we have.”)

Q. Walker Lewis starts schools for disadvantaged children of all ethnicities.

Samuel and Amanda Chambers, with their superior knowledge of berry cultivation, supervise Church welfare in Salt Lake City

In the 1960s, Utah is celebrated as the only state in the nation which does not practice segregation, and the NAACP gives the governor a bouquet of wildflowers.

When it was clear that my audience had no idea who these people were, I skipped ahead to recent statements, several responding to this post by Joanna Brooks. . I read the first comment:

It’s a difficult differentiation to split the hairs between a racist practice and a bigoted practice, just the same as it is difficult to discuss gender differentiation without appearing sexist.
When the Savior initially refuses to bless the Canaanite woman because his mission is to the Jews and not the Gentiles – one could take this doctrine to be racist in that it divides the human family into classes.
In my understanding, the practice of not ordaining negros to the priesthood was a spiritual impression given to Joseph Smith when he was about to perform an ordination similar to others that he had done before.

[sic]

I knew that the audience I had anticipated would perhaps have rolled their eyes. The audience I got dropped their jaws. I heard groans of disbelief and amazement. Clearly, the errant justification was unthinkable, even contemptible to these non-Mormon scholars. They didn’t know that this kind of thing had been freely taught for years after Joseph Smith’s death.

I read another comment:

The question remains, why would God institute such a policy. My theory is that the LDS Church, in its infancy, could have been easily overwhelmed by the issues of the post Civil War. Had Mormons been as ‘enlightened then’ as we believe ourselves to be now, a rapid influx might have overwhelmed the church in a way that the imperfect individuals called to lead and direct may not have been prepared for.

[sic]

Again, my audience was aghast. So there I was, speaking from inside my own bubble and realizing how horrific the words were.

Of course, it got worse. The panel finished and a brilliant woman approached me, waiting politely until I was free to talk.

“What are you going to do?” she asked me. “What are you going to do about this?”

In my mind a vision of the Church hierarchy (Correlation included) spread out. How could I explain that the LDS belief in a modern prophet often prevents needed statements lest they challenge the faith of the feeble? How could I tell her that we as a Church are afraid of speaking boldly about a prophet making a huge mistake, because the prophetic mantle immediately comes into question?

I told this woman that I didn’t know what to do, but that Darius Gray and I had made a documentary which we hoped would help. I could feel myself shrinking as she dismissed the idea with a sympathetic shake of her head.

“A documentary won’t solve this. You will need to take down the whole structure and start over.”

I accepted her card, went to lunch (alone) and sat pondering what she had said.

In my presentation, I had quoted Judgment at Nuremberg, where former Nazi judge Ernst Janning tries to explain his actions to the American judge. In the trial itself, the court had been shown gruesome footage from the Holocaust. Herr Janning says to his judge, “Those pictures, those terrible pictures. You must understand, I never imagined it would come to that.” The American judge responds, “Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced to death a man you knew to be innocent.”

Indeed, our actions foreordain (set into order) the consequences unless we return to the spot where we took that first step, either for the good or for the bad. Yes, she was absolutely right. We had to undo as much of the damage as possible. We had to repent.

I read her words when I returned home—words from her own endeavor to use scriptural pleas and prayer to lament our common guilt and begin healing.

She, Kathryn Rickert, says:

We can learn how to rejoice and how to weep together…Scripture…is abundant with laments in both poetic and narrative forms[.] Romans 8: 26: ‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.’We live in a time where this daring prayer is very gradually making a comeback as a fundamental part of the Christian tradition of prayer and worship. The absolute necessity of this kind of prayer is denied, though, when we cannot hear lament as a profound demonstration of love and trust; of opening up to God and to each other.

I returned home sobered by the heights of the spiritual mountains we Latter-day Saints must climb if we are to be one in Christ.

Today, friends let me know that a fellow blogger had posted a ghoulish photo of a double lynching on the Mormon channel of Patheos. He intended it to be humorous and as “horrific” as the accusation that Mormons help only other Mormons. I will not post the picture, which was soon replaced by something relevant to what the author was saying. But to him and anyone else who thinks there’s one particle of humor in a lynching, let me say this: DON’T YOU EVER MOCK THE CREATIONS OF GOD, AND DON’T YOU FOR ONE MOMENT MINIMIZE CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY. Pictures of lynchings etc. should astound us and call us to repentance. They are never punch lines or effective illustrations of “amusing” hyperboles.

I am reminded of a white person in Florida who asked Darius Gray after a fireside, “Why do ya’ll get offended by the word nigger? It’s what we’ve always called you. We don’t mean nothin’ by it.”

Those of us present were stunned for a moment. Darius was diplomatic. I said nothing, except in my mind. There, I said, “Well, Ma’am, your intentions don’t cover your insensitivity, do they.”

On June 8th, the LDS Church will celebrate 35 years since the priesthood revelation, the day that finally returned the priesthood and all its concomitant blessings to those of African descent. I do not represent the church, only myself. But I will be using that day as a day of lamentation and hope. I will read scriptures that teach me how to mourn and how to transform mourning into hope.

About Margaret Blair Young

Margaret Blair Young teaches literature and creative writing at Brigham Young University. For the past fifteen years, she has specialized in the history of blacks in the west, particularly black Mormons. She has written six novels and two short story collections, but has lately become interested in filmmaking. Her current endeavor is a film to be shot in Zambia called Heart of Africa (www.heartofafricafilm.com)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1183930282 Dale Wight

    Thanks, Margaret.

    Things are changing: when I mentioned the priesthood restriction recently, my Stake President waved it off saying, “Oh, that was just a mistake.” I was encouraged to see the Church act quickly and thoroughly to cleanse BYU from the Bottulism outbreak last year. With signs like these appearing, I’ve come to believe that we’re on a trajectory that will end celebrations of the priesthood revelation as they come to be seen equivalent to I-stopped-beating-my-wife celebrations.

    A checkpoint will come next year as we discuss the relevant chapters of Moses and Abraham in our Gospel Doctrine classes. I’m eager to see what progress we’ll see from the last time, which sparked this response: https://www.facebook.com/groups/355468294495274/permalink/533202906721811/#!/groups/blacklatterdaysaints/doc/10150224060172158/

    • Nicholas Sherwood

      It was indeed a wonderful post. But I wonder if I am the only one to see some irony in your comment when posed against your avatar. What will they dismiss in the future with another “Oh, that was just a mistake”?

      • E B

        The difference is in doctrine. The gospel teaches that all people can have the same blessings if they keep the commandments (including blacks). However, the LDS Church doctrine of marriage is that it is ordained of God between man and woman and that families are an important part of God’s plan. I don’t see gay marriage ever becoming sanctioned by the LDS Church in that light.

        I understand why people both inside and outside the LDS Church think that’s a similar situation, but the difference lies in understanding that one of them is approved by God and the other is opposed. Yet gay members are promised the same blessings as everyone else if they keep the same commandments.

        • Douglas Hunter

          “However, the LDS Church doctrine of marriage is that it is ordained of God between man and woman and that families are an important part of God’s plan. . . the difference lies in understanding that one of them is approved by God and the other is opposed.”

          “understanding” is the critical word here. Where does that understanding come from? From God himself? Many would like to think so, but God has not give the true understanding of the meaning and nature of being gay to the leaders of the church, while witholding that understanding from gay folks themselves. Similarlly, God has not given the true meaning and nature of being a woman to men, while witholding it from women. God has not given the true meaning and nature of being black to white folks while witholding it from black folks. God has not given the true meaning and nature of being poor to the wealthy while witholding it from the poor themselves.
          Yet many religious institutions, including our own, have acted as if this is exactly how God works.

          When we rely on institutional claims to define the world for us, when we put institutions and their supposed authority before living breathing people and claim that institutional leaders have special knowledge that they can’t possibly have. Then we are deep in the realm of political ideology, not faith. Religion is not the place to go to understand Ontology, specifically that of groups that have been historically excluded from religious particiaption. But religion is the place we go in order to learn what the divine would have us do when faced with the presence of the radically Other.

  • chrishenrichsen

    Thank you, Margaret.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ignacio.m.garcia.71 Ignacio M. Garcia

    I’ve learned never to engage nonbelievers in discussions of church history simply because the complicated conversations never lead to anything but some pity on their part for me. The fact is, in today’s world, it is hard to work through difficult issues out in the open because everyone takes one strain within the argument and runs with it. Racism was a fundamental aspect of all of the world’s society and there is not one philosophy or religious sect that is completely guiltless. I think we should continue to work on it but I’m not so sure that having that discussion out in the open is a good idea. We should be open with ourselves and not care what others think, but we should be careful about going out with others and figuring they will understand. They don’t. I’ve tried it numerous times, with “friends” and “open-minded” individuals and the reaction is always the same–a condescending “advise” of what we “should do”, including “bringing down the structure”. If we believe that to be good advise then we really don’t belong in the church. Believe me, this doesn’t mean we aren’t critical and call it like it is but there must be some sense within us that the whole is more valuable that its bad parts. If we don’t truly believe that then we have no business trying to change an organization that we don’t believe in. That is why I always hate when they ask a liberal or a conservative to give advise to the other side. You can’t truly advise unless you deeply care. Mormonism has serious problems with its history, but we must also realize that some things we believe to be true will not be to everyone’s liking. The point of Jesus and the Cannanite woman is a case in point. To repeat that story to anyone is to be accused of discrimination but unless we don’t believe the story to be true, we have to accept that Jesus had a purpose. He did not come to act politically correct but to save mankind. I don’t happen to believe the rationalizations for the priesthood ban, but neither do I believe that the Lord’s actions should be measured by men’s measuring sticks, and that is what makes it hard to speak to unbelievers. And that is the challenge to Mormon believing liberals. We have to accept that we are never going to fit in fully and we must be willing to accept that, because I can assure you that there will be more “uncomfortable things” that will come out and we will have to continually be balancing out our faith with our outrage.

    • http://www.facebook.com/dennis.beesley.5 Dennis Beesley

      I agree. I think her title that she was “in the wrong room” says it all. Regardless of how you interpret the priesthood ban (a mistake of men or policy of God’s), I can’t help but wonder how her presentation and later discussion influenced the view of those who are not of our faith. Open discussion within our own community is both helpful and necessary in order for us to become one, but we should always ask ourselves (even as academics) what our words and actions do to hinder or progress the work of the Lord.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=698295684 Hellmut Lotz

      No, the problem is not the non-members. They get it. The problem is that we sanctify racism and expect others to tolerate it.

  • Trevor Price

    So grateful to have your voice heard, Margaret.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=698295684 Hellmut Lotz

    You won’t believe how often I recognized my grandparents’ situation in my Mormon life. Sad but true.

    Thanks for speaking out.

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    When’s the LDS church going to fix that little thing about women priests, too? I suppose that’s also just “flawed prophesy”?

    And yes, I’m aware that Mormonism is far from the only church to have that issue. It’s still an important issue. Why is Ms. Young (or any woman) even part of a church she’s explicitly denied full membership in? I honestly and truly don’t get that.

    • http://www.facebook.com/margaret.young.735 Margaret Young

      That’s a different subject, and one I have addressed in podcasts. If I write a blog post about that issue, I’ll be happy to further discuss it.

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

        Cool beans.

  • http://twitter.com/datsneefa Jim Terwiliger

    All Christian morality is based upon slavery and guilt. This is why Christians, and now Mormons are catching so much heat.

    Without the complete submission of will you can’t be ‘saved’.

    It’s a money/power grab, nothing else.

  • Douglas Hunter

    Margaret,

    Thanks for this post, I really wish that we could have an honest discussion about the temple and priesthood ban in the context of the ideology of white supremacy that appears to have been fairly common among church leaders throughout the 20th century. Not that they were joining the klan or anything, (well in Germany there were LDS members of the Nazi party but we will over look that for now) anyway in talks and letters, etc, expressions of the belief in the inferiority of black people and the “threat” posed by civil rights were not uncommon. Difference was used for degradation. If the ban were indeed God’s will such ideological argumentation would have been completely and obviously superfluous, but it wasn’t.

    I think we need to clearly state that God had nothing to do with the temple and priesthood ban, that it was instituted by men, and ended by men, and that our church leaders did what so many others did in finding ways to theologically justify their prejudice and fear. Its not like we don’t understand why people did such things, but in the end any suggestion that God played a role merely provides cover to institutional leadership, which is both unnecessary and unethical. We can forgive, and accept, and heal, as so many others have done, but only if we are brave enough to stop trying to blame God for our own short comings.

    We also should address what we might call the metaphysics of whiteness that still persists in the church. The association of purity, truth, goodness, and so on with whiteness would seem less problematic if there were not cultural practices in place today that keep the tension between white-good / black-bad in place, such as the idea that it is necessary to wear a white shirt to pass the sacrament.

    • http://www.facebook.com/margaret.young.735 Margaret Young

      Amen.

    • E B

      I’ve lived in two places with greater diversity than your average LDS congregation and I assure you that black members, generally speaking, do not have a problem understanding white as a symbol for purity before God. White will continue to be an important symbol in baptismal and temple ordinances. But, we can teach people that that is what they are: symbols. I feel like the wards I’ve been in do that well, as well as teaching members of different cultural backgrounds to fellowship each other.

      • Douglas Hunter

        I think you misunderstand my point. It’s not that I fear people with black skin somehow lack the ability to understand symbols. It’s the integrity of the symbol itself that I question.

  • E B

    I like this. For anyone trying to understand what this or any other issue discussed pertaining to Mormons, you need to understand that there are three separate but related entities involved here.

    First, the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is unchanging, eternal truth and includes all virtues such as love, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness, etc. In this case we know doctrinally speaking that all people on the earth have access to the same blessings through the power of the priesthood (doesn’t matter so much who holds the priesthood). I’m overjoyed that this no longer means that African Americans are no longer denied temple blessings in this life.

    Second, the Church which teaches the gospel, at times changing policies to best meet that objective. It is administered by human beings, who like any and every other human being excepting Jesus Christ Himself are subject to errors. The current Church leadership begs members to forgive past and present mistakes.

    Third is Mormon culture. This unfortunately doesn’t always have much to do with either the gospel or the Church, as evidenced by the ability to have a conference speech “in the wrong room” be so different from what it would be to other members.
    http://www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com

  • Mittymo

    Reminds me of when Catholics had Inquisitions & made people eat fish on Fridays.

    Perhaps God does not reveal everything at once & allows man to work things out over time. And when man finally does find the true ways of God, that is cause for celebration, not lamentation.

    • trytoseeitmyway

      This is close to my own view. I am embarrassed by nothing in Church history so much as the priesthood ban and “mark of Cain” malarkey. But Brother Bringham said much else with which we disagree, proving that prophets lead but not inerrantly. If you think of Paul’s attitude toward slavery and other developments, you can view the history of Christianity itself as a process of restoration of truths that should lead us toward more holiness. And the irreligious among us are in no position to throw stones, however much self- righteousness they affect at any given time.


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