16 A Mormon in the Cheap Seats: On Owning It

I think there are a few things that we, as Mormons, need to “own.” Or maybe “own up to” is a better way to put it?

Take racism, for example. Let me ask you a question. Prior to 1978, was church policy regarding blacks and the priesthood racist?

Did you hesitate?

I understand the hesitancy. “Racist” is an ugly word.  We’ve seen Mississippi Burning. We’re not racist like THAT–not like THEY were. That kind of racism is blind, brutish, and  inscrutable. It’s also cardboard thin–and a caricature.

Most racism isn’t like that. Most racists are more or less decent people. They love their kids. They want what’s best for their neighbors and their community. And in their minds (and this is important), they aren’t racists. Many (if not most) of those opposed to the Civil Rights Movement didn’t view themselves as racists.  They had their reasons.  “God never intended for the races to mix,” they argued.  “It’s in the Bible,” they said. “The real issue is states’ rights,” they reasoned. Etcetera. They weren’t racist–they had other reasons besides racism to perpetuate racial inequality. The irony, of course, is THAT is what racism is.

Words mean things. And sometimes we need to have the intellectual honesty, I believe, to take a long, unbiased (if that’s possible) look at ourselves in the mirror.

Is the Church Racist?

Back to that question. Was the church policy prior to 1978 regarding blacks and priesthood racist?

Of course it was. That doesn’t answer the question of whether or not God wanted it that way. I don’t believe he did. There are certainly others that disagree with me.  But that’s a different issue.

Are there still aspects of Mormon theology that are racist? Are some of your beliefs racist? Test yourself with these questions:

1) In Mormon theology, is skin color an indication of ancestral (or personal) righteousness? Do you believe that it is?
2) In Mormon theology, is skin color an indication of personal righteousness in the pre-existence? Do you believe that it is?
3) In Mormon theology, can personal righteousness lead to a lightening (or whitening) of an individual’s skin color? Do you believe that it can?

How did the church come out?  How did you come out?

Is the Church Sexist?

Here are a few questions:

1) In the Mormon church, does one’s sex qualify (or disqualify) one for leadership positions? Do you believe it should be that way?
2) In the Mormon church, are there prescribed gender roles? Do you believe there should be?
3) In the broader Mormon community, are women treated equally (in terms of respect, control of resources, etc.)? Do you believe they should be?

How did the church come out? How did you come out?

Is the Church Elitist?

Here are a few questions:

1) In Mormon theology, are there “chosen” groups of people? Are there people that God favors more than others? Do you believe this is accurate?
2) In Mormon theology, does God bless particularly righteous individuals with material wealth or social status?  Do you believe he does?
3) In the Mormon church, are men in leadership positions assumed to have greater access to God than average church members? Do you believe this is the case?

Here’s the Point

I don’t want to debate whether or not specific church doctrines or practices are right or wrong, or whether or not they are an accurate reflection of God’s will, although that might be an interesting discussion. I just want to define terms. Are there vestiges of racism in our doctrine? Absolutely (although the church has, slowly but surely, been moving to eradicate it, by changing words and phrases in the BoM, for example, and by explicitly calling into question certain historical teachings).  Is the church sexist? Absolutely. It’s an unabashed patriarchy (and it is therefore, by definition, sexist). It is elitist? In almost any sense of the word, certain church teachings are elitist.

Why do we need to recognize these realities?  Because, regardless of what we ultimately do with the information, it will help us avoid the Donny and Marie trap.  Here’s a YouTube video of a young Donny and Marie fielding a question about blacks and the priesthood and the role of women in the church (a transcript of Donny and Marie’s responses appears below).

In this video, a very earnest (and sincere) Donny claims that “we are not a prejudiced people” and then goes on to explain that we are, in fact, prejudiced (although we don’t really know why, God just wants it that way).  Marie, for her part, assures the audience that women do not play a “secondary” role in Mormonism–but then finishes her thought by saying that, “but as far as speaking her mind. . . that should be the man’s job.”

Sigh.

Is intellectual honesty still a virtue–even when it’s not convenient?

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Donny (on racism): “You bet.  Well, I’m not an authority on the subject.  But I will mention that we are not prejudiced people. We offer more, I think, than any other religion, to the black person.  And if you really. . . want a good explanation. . . from someone that has some authority about it, you should really talk to the general authorities of our church.  They’re not allowed to hold the priesthood right now, and I don’t know why, but that’s the way the Lord wants it.”

Marie (on sexism): “Secondary, no.  But you have to remember that you need a patriarch at the head of the home. . . and this is the way that I feel. You need someone to run the home. The woman is equally as important. But as far as speaking her mind. . . that should be the man’s job.”

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