Mormonism's Abandoned Race Policy: Context Matters

Mormons believe that they are a modern Israel led by modern prophets, and they see the voice of those prophets as having special authority. Repudiating such prophetic voices feels disloyal, like rejecting the Bible, which is, after all, a collection of prophetic voices from the past.
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The insightful and sympathetic observer of Mormonism, John G. Turner (history professor at George Mason University) offered recently in the New York Times the most incisive call yet for Mormon leadership to formally repudiate Mormonism's historic (ca. 1852-1978) refusal to allow people of African descent to participate fully in the church.

In responding to Professor Turner, I want to emphasize three basic points in his excellent editorial that are commonly misunderstood.

First, some Mormons are racist.

Second, some Mormons are not racist.

Third, whether Mormon church leaders should issue an institutional apology for the prior policy of racial exclusion is about more than just racism.

The first point should go without saying because many humans are racist and Mormons are human. But even though it should be obvious, this point matters enough to say it explicitly. Some modern Latter-day Saints (LDS) still believe and employ the toxic folklore that once made sense of the policy of racial exclusion. (That folklore, while using some idiosyncratically Mormon imagery, does not differ in fundamentals from other racist Christian folklore.) This racism occurs more among people of prior generations and it appears to be waning, but this is a fact that must be acknowledged in any discussion of Mormonism and race.

Second, and this point warrants frequent repetition, many Latter-day Saints are appalled by racism. Many of them see the pre-1978 policy as a national sin that church leaders should have avoided but didn't. Many of them see the persistence of folklore and the refusal to issue an institutional apology as markers of Mormon difference from broader American society with unfortunate ramifications. Many believe that their predecessors were not as different from other Americans as they should have been. Most Americans have grandparents or great-grandparents, perhaps even parents, who were or are unapologetically racist. This racism bothers most of us, but when they are people we know well, we tend to try to contextualize their racism, to see them as products of their cultural setting, even as we gently correct them where possible. Many Latter-day Saints have a similarly familial relationship with their church and its past. As few other religious groups in modern America, Mormons honor their recent predecessors, tell stories about them, explicitly reenact their epic experiences in pageants and special campouts. They study those predecessors in their Sunday School classes and other worship services. These Latter-day Saints love the Church and want the very best for it. They are generally willing to contextualize prior racism as they would for a family member, even as they hope to eliminate its vestiges in the contemporary church.

There are at least two types of Mormons who are not racists, though, and that fact points to the third idea I want to emphasize. Some non-racist LDS would very much like the LDS Church to repudiate the racial exclusion policy and its associated folklore, including a formal institutional apology, just as Professor Turner and others have recommended. Other non-racist Mormons feel that the 1978 termination of the racial exclusion policy was fully adequate, and an institutional apology would have significant secondary effects that would be toxic to the Church.

The secondary effects of such an institutional apology are important to consider, and I congratulate Turner for recognizing this explicitly. Put simply, the question of repudiation of the prior racial exclusion policy is about more than racism. It is also a question about community ties and Mormon theologies of divine revelation. Painting Mormon reluctance to repudiate their church's prior policy as mere racism is unfair and inaccurate. For many LDS, respect for the authority of prior Church leaders is more important than compliance with modern expectations about penance for prior racism. I think for many Latter-day Saints, being in most respects modern Americans, the tension between loyalty to past church leaders and revulsion toward racism feels insoluble. They feel damned if they do and damned if they don't: they can either doubt the integrity of their spiritual leaders or be accused of racism. Forced to choose, many of them commit to their church and hope that their own lives make clear that they are not personally racist.

I suspect that most LDS would be delighted to reject their history of racial exclusion if there were only a way to do so that would not threaten their beliefs about prophetic reliability. This tension has immediate relevance for contemporary Mormons in the midst of current culture wars. Modern Mormons are currently being asked by their leaders to adhere to a particular view of gender, particularly as it applies to female leadership and heterosexual marriage norms. If earlier LDS leaders were simply wrong about race, what keeps them from being wrong about gender? Though Mormonism contains a variety of ideas about the significance of gender, in both theory and practice, for many the question of prior racial exclusion feels relevant to current debates about sexual identity.

Outsiders should recognize that Mormonism is not just an idiosyncratic Protestant denomination. While Mormons strongly desire the title Christian, they are not Protestant. There are elements of Mormon life that make it difficult for church leaders to issue an institutional apology. Mormons believe that they are a modern Israel led by modern prophets, and they see the voice of those prophets as having special authority. Repudiating such prophetic voices feels disloyal, like rejecting the Bible, which is, after all, a collection of prophetic voices from the past. Professor Turner suggests that Mormons could use biblical precedent to incorporate the possibility of prophetic fallibility. Many of the famous figures in the Bible made huge mistakes, as he correctly notes. In my experience, this approach has not been terribly successful; it is easier for many LDS to accept fallible prophets in an ancient culture than in their own lifetime. In part that comes from the powerful security that comes from seeing current church leaders as divinely inspired and authorized. Many LDS find great meaning in the confidence that their leaders are divinely inspired. Because of the theology and structure of their church, many non-racist Mormons have a difficult path ahead. Mormons, both individually and institutionally, will find their way through the sharp tensions associated with cultural change and the growing consensus that racist views are toxic. But they will need to find their own way, and that way will almost certainly involve specifically Latter-day Saints assumptions and practices.

For outside observers, then, I would offer the following advice: First, recognize that whether Mormon leaders formally apologize for historic racial exclusion or not is about more than race and racism. Second, workable solutions for Mormons loyal to their church and repulsed by racism will take time and special attention to the particularities of Mormon life and religion.

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