Race, Priesthood and Infallibility

CD08MORMONS--6-6-2003--Jesse (cq) Thomas (cq), a black sharecropper's son who grew up Baptist but converted to the Mormon faith, stands in front of the Denver Temple of the Mormon Church located at 2001 East Phillips Circle; Centennial, Colorado on FridayThe church has put up a couple interesting gospel topic pages recently on LDS.org.  A page on the first vision accounts (yes, plural) went up a few weeks ago.  A couple days ago a page went up that addresses race and the priesthood.

A number of people I know and respect seemed pleased by the church’s efforts to distance itself from racism (past and present).  Although I’m glad to see the church addressing some of these difficult issues, I was more ambivalent about this latest effort.

For me, there is a difference between “change” and “progress.”  I see change in the church as a constant.  The church is constantly evolving, and many of those changes are positive, but here’s the problem.  Society evolves as well, and from what I can tell, the church has been a generation behind for the past 50 or 75 years, particularly when it comes to social issues.  It’s this gap that bothers me.  Progress, at least for me, would involve closing this gap.  The church’s position on this issue has changed (and in a positive way), but, in general, I’m not convinced it’s making any progress.  In fact, given the speed at which society has evolved over the past 50 years, the church seems to be falling further behind.

This latest effort by the church also highlights a different–and more fundamental–problem.

Here is one of the concluding paragraphs of the race and the priesthood page:

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.

Note that the church disavows “theories” that were “advanced” that linked black skin to divine disfavor and actions in premortal life.

Funny, I don’t see the word “theory” used here:

21 And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them (2 Nephi 5:21).

 And the word “theory” wasn’t used in this statement on the “negro question”:

The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality (Statement by the First Presidency, August 17, 1949).

Joseph Fielding Smith didn’t use it here:

There were no neutrals in the war in Heaven. All took sides either with Christ or with Satan. Every man had his agency there, and men receive rewards here based upon their actions there, just as they will receive rewards hereafter for deeds done in the body. The Negro, evidently, is receiving the reward he merits (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation).

Bruce R. McConkie didn’t use the word “theory” here:

Those who were less valiant in pre-existence and who thereby had certain spiritual restrictions impose on them during mortality are known to us as the negroes. Such spirits are sent to earth through the lineage of Cain, the mark put upon him for his rebellion against God, and his murder of Able being a black skin . . . . the negroes are not equal with other races where the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned. . . . (Mormon Doctrine, 1966 edition).

And so on.

This wasn’t a “cultural” issue.  This wasn’t a case of church members making up unauthorized “theories” to explain a problematic policy.  This was top-down, from-the-prophet-himself doctrine, and this doctrine is preserved (like an insect in amber) in the historical record.  The notion that black skin was a divine curse and that blacks deserved their state because of something they did (or didn’t do) before they were born shows up in official statements from the first presidency (see the quote above).  These ideas were preached as doctrine from the pulpit in church-wide conferences.  They were included in official publications and manuals.  And, most importantly, these ideas were perceived (and received) as doctrine by faithful members of the church.

Members who were led by their conscience and/or their own spiritual experiences to speak out against these doctrines and policies were accused of not “following the prophet.”  They were told they didn’t have enough faith, that they were engaged in apostasy, that they were being deceived by Satan.  They weren’t “real” Mormons.  They were ostracized, disfellowshipped and excommunicated.

This raises an interesting question.  When does doctrine become “theory”?

The last sentence of the paragraph is even more interesting: “Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”

Does this mean that the church condemns its own racist policies (and the doctrine that supported those policies) prior to 1978?

It states in the article that “after praying for guidance, President McKay did not feel impressed to lift the ban.”  Does this mean that God wanted this racist policy to remain in place?  If we believe that God wanted the priesthood ban in place, then is it wise to “unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form?”  Maybe we should attach an asterisk to this statement that says something like this: “This statement doesn’t apply if we believe God wants us to be racist”?

There is a lot on this gospel topic page that should be discussed (e.g. Why did Joseph Smith ordain black men to the priesthood?  Why did Brigham Young stop doing so?  Where is the revelation that started the ban?  If there isn’t a revelation that started the ban, then why did we need one to end it?  If we have a living prophet, why wasn’t the church leading the civil rights movement instead of being dragged reluctantly along in its wake?  Etc.).

I heard somebody make the following observation the other day.  The Catholics claim the pope is infallible, but they don’t act like it, while Mormons, in contrast, do just the opposite.  “Church leaders aren’t infallible,” we tell ourselves, “but then we insist on acting like they are.”

So what we have is a page that just showed up on the “official” church website that states that we now believe that all men are equal.  Do we get a cookie for showing up to the party 50 years late?

And to make things worse, we still haven’t grown up enough as a church to admit that our church leaders aren’t infallible, and neither is our doctrine.  I’ll be impressed when we, as a church, can admit that to ourselves.  Claiming that we’re just dismissing ”theories” (or folk beliefs, as another church official put it) isn’t fooling anyone but ourselves (and we’re not even doing a good job of that).

Other posts on the topic:

Great quotes on the topic:

“What is most important about the statement on race to Mormon historian Richard Bushman is its perspective. “It is written as a historian might tell the story,” Bushman says from his home in New York, “not as a theological piece, trying to justify the practice.” By depicting the exclusion as fitting with the common practices of the day, says Bushman, who wrote “Rough Stone Rolling,” a critically acclaimed biography of Smith, “it drains the ban of revelatory significance, makes it something that just grew up and, in time, had to be eliminated.” But accepting that, Bushman says, “requires a deep reorientation of Mormon thinking.” Mormons believe that their leaders are in regular communication with God, so if you say Young could make a serious error, he says, “it brings into question all of the prophet’s inspiration.” Members need to recognize that God can “work through imperfect instruments,” Bushman says. “For many Latter-day Saints, that is going to be a difficult transition. But it is part of our maturation as a church.” [From the The Salt Lake Tribute article linked above; emphasis added.]

“But then I went to college, to BYU, in 1974.  And a friend of mine gave me a copy of a talk he’d read, and suggested I read it too.  Said, ‘this is great.  This is the best thing I’ve ever read.’  It was a talk by Alvin R. Dyer, a prominent Church leader.  It was called ‘For What Purpose.’  Here’s the link.  I really debated in my mind whether I should link to Brother Dyer’s talk.  He was a fine man, a good man, and many people today still hold him in high esteem.  And this talk, well, it’s appalling.  Three degrees of pre-existent spirits, with racial difference earned by spiritual indifference or rebellion before birth.  It’s nonsense, of course.  But it was prominent back in my youth–a version of it was published in pamphlet form available for sale in the BYU Bookstore.  And I think there’s value in confronting our past.  And persistent, omnipresent racism, even at this level, is part of our past, as Americans and as Mormons.” [From the Mormon Iconoclast post linked above.]

Additional Talks (suggested by Derek Lee) to add to the Dialogue compendium linked above: