There’s nothing like a good racial kerfuffle in Mormondom to set the bloggernacle abubble (This is a link to the chronology of what I’ll call Bott-gate).
Here’s a summary. A professor at BYU repeats in public what Mormons, up until about 30 years ago, only said in private, and now, as a friend on Facebook put it, the guy “has tire marks on his earnest soul” from being thrown under a few different busses by a church he’s spent his life serving.” It’s not a happy affair, really. After a few phone calls from Salt Lake, the poor chap was responding to press inquiries by emailing out this statement: “I have been asked by the Church to forward their response and endorse it. In order to be obedient, that will be the extent of my comment.” Nothing like a grown man telling other adults that he’s “being obedient” to put things into perspective.
A few other bloggers have gone first on this. Jana Riess and Joanna Brooks, in particular, both deserve a read. I just want to make a few points to any fellow Mormons out there that may be paying attention:
1) The “we don’t know why we did it” defense of our racist past (i.e. our ban on blacks receiving the priesthood) is popular these days. If you find yourself tempted to follow the crowd down this path, don’t do it. This is not a good defense. We end up looking like hapless teenagers caught smoking pot behind the school telling their parents that they “don’t know why they did it.”
2) A variation on this argument is the all-time classic “God told us to do it” defense. What’s curious about this particular defense in our case is that we don’t have any record of God telling us anything about it, really. There is no official pronouncement. No revelation. It’s unclear what Joseph Smith taught on the subject. All we have is an accumulation of racist precedent, and then a hundred years or so of reluctance to challenge that precedent, until the church wound up with its head in a vice and then proclaimed in 1978 that, to quote The Book of Mormon musical (around 3:10 in), “God changed his mind about black people.”
3) As Mormons we want everyone to like us. We care how we are perceived. We can’t hide the priesthood ban, so we have to own it–but we’re still tempted to try to bury the motivation for it. It’s a “Look Mom, No Hands!” approach to issue management . We want to say, “look, we aren’t racists, and we have no idea why that racist policy was enforced for 130 years.” But here’s the problem. Our motivation for the ban (i.e. the logic behind it, the narrative that supported and sustained it), and the ban itself, are conjoined twins. They can’t be separated. God didn’t just drop the priesthood ban, fully formed, into the laps of church officials and then wish them luck. We have evidence of the process–of the sausage making, if you will. Church leaders debated the rationale (curse of Cain? less valiant in the pre-existence?) as they formulated the policy (could blacks receive the temple endowment? or the priesthood?). As time went on, the rationale for the ban helped to cement and perpetuate the ban itself. And the ban helped to cement and perpetuate the rationale for it.
4) So if the rationale behind the priesthood ban was “speculation and opinion, not doctrine“ then what about the ban itself? Are we claiming that the ban was “correct” and that it was just the ugly rationale that we attached to it that’s the problem? I’m not sure if I have to choose between the “chicken” of the priesthood ban and the “egg” of the rationale for it, that I want the chicken.
Here’s a radical idea. I suggest we employ this clever, three-step approach: 1) We have the integrity to see things as they really are, not as we want them to be (or as we think they should be), 2) We talk openly and honestly about our church and its history (there is a lot to be proud of), and 3) We humbly recognize that we see through a glass darkly, just like everyone else (and there is nothing wrong with admitting we were wrong).
Admitting that we were wrong about both the chicken and the egg. All of it.
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