Peggy Fletcher Stack reports on what seems like big news — and good news — from Salt Lake City:
In the past, the LDS Church has said history isn’t clear on why blacks were banned from its all-male priesthood for more than a century.
Now it is.
The reason, according to a newly released explanation from the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is rooted in racism rather than revelation.
“Race and the Priesthood,” posted Friday on the church’s website, lds.org, also jettisons any beliefs developed through the years to defend the prohibition.
The statement is refreshingly frank about the history its confronting here:
For much of its history—from the mid-1800s until 1978—the Church did not ordain men of black African descent to its priesthood or allow black men or women to participate in temple endowment or sealing ordinances.
The Church was established in 1830, during an era of great racial division in the United States. At the time, many people of African descent lived in slavery, and racial distinctions and prejudice were not just common but customary among white Americans. Those realities, though unfamiliar and disturbing today, influenced all aspects of people’s lives, including their religion. …
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was restored amidst a highly contentious racial culture in which whites were afforded great privilege. In 1790, the U.S. Congress limited citizenship to “free white person[s].” Over the next half century, issues of race divided the country — while slave labor was legal in the more agrarian South, it was eventually banned in the more urbanized North. Even so, racial discrimination was widespread in the North as well as the South, and many states implemented laws banning interracial marriage. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that blacks possessed “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” A generation after the Civil War (1861–65) led to the end of slavery in the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional, a decision that legalized a host of public color barriers until the Court reversed itself in 1954.
In 1850, the U.S. Congress created Utah Territory, and the U.S. president appointed Brigham Young to the position of territorial governor. Southerners who had converted to the Church and migrated to Utah with their slaves raised the question of slavery’s legal status in the territory. In two speeches delivered before the Utah territorial legislature in January and February 1852, Brigham Young announced a policy restricting men of black African descent from priesthood ordination. …The justifications for this restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black “servitude” in the Territory of Utah. According to one view, which had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s, blacks descended from the same lineage as the biblical Cain, who slew his brother Abel. Those who accepted this view believed that God’s “curse” on Cain was the mark of a dark skin. Black servitude was sometimes viewed as a second curse placed upon Noah’s grandson Canaan as a result of Ham’s indiscretion toward his father. Although slavery was not a significant factor in Utah’s economy and was soon abolished, the restriction on priesthood ordinations remained.
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 a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks 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.
I’m not well-versed in Mormon church polity (chime in if you know this stuff), but my understanding is that a statement like this from the top is authoritative, meaning that final statement — “Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form” — would be binding for all Latter Day Saints.
That would seem to make this a pretty big deal.
But then again, Roman Catholic polity is also hierarchical, and similar unambiguous top-down condemnations of racism from the Catholic hierarchy haven’t managed to trickle down to all the people in the pews.
Take, for example, Megyn Kelly of Fox News. Incensed by a columnist’s concerns about the implications of a white Santa Claus for non-white children, Kelly announced that it’s “a verifiable fact” that Santa Claus, like Jesus, is white:
“For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white,” Kelly said. “But this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa. But Santa is what he is.”
“Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change, you know?” she added. “I mean, Jesus was a white man too. He was a historical figure, that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa — I just want the kids watching to know that.”
Jesus was a first-century Palestinian Jew. That didn’t make him white. That made him dark-skinned — as in No-Fly-List, Joe-Arpaio-wants-to-deport-you, Tom-Corbett-wants-to-stop-you-from-voting dark-skinned.
So in honor of Kelly, here’s a song that turns 40 years old this Christmas, “Santa Claus Is a Black Man,” by Akim & Teddy. It’s kind of a novelty song — Akim was songwriter Teddy Vann’s then very young daughter — but give it a listen and see if her adorable rendition of it’s perky little melody isn’t still bopping through your head later today: