Thanks to a misunderstanding between my car and three 18-wheelers, I’ve missed most of what has been going on in the world over the last week or so. But apparently while I was staring at ceiling tiles in a hospital room, some boneheaded professor at Brigham Young University graciously decided to provide me with some blog fodder by speculating about the reasons for the LDS Church’s exclusion of blacks from the Priesthood until 1978. As of the last report I’ve read, he is still gnawing vigorously at his own foot.
We’ll talk about the issue of the priesthood in a moment, but the current controversy touches upon the broader question of whether Mormons are racist. To me, this is a particularly interesting question, both historically and personally.
Historically, it is yet another example of the perpetual no-win situation forced upon Mormons by our critics. One of the primary complaints about Joseph Smith while he was alive was that non-Mormons believed he was “soft” on slavery, and might have been an abolitionist. In 1830’s Missouri, which was the center of the storm in the slavery debate, being perceived as an abolitionist meant drawing both political fire and, frequently, gunfire. So it is curious that the same church that was targeted for being too accommodating of blacks 180 years ago now is criticized for being racist. Can’t win for losing.
Personally, my views about race changed significantly as a young man as a direct result of my service as a full-time missionary for the Church. Prior to my mission, my interaction with people of other cultures was minimal, and my mindset reflected the ignorance that comes from such a lack of experience. But on my mission, I went door-to-door on the South Side of Chicago, walking in a new world for me and discovering the kindness and goodness of people from many different races and culture. More importantly, my closest friendship on my mission was with a black missionary from Trinidad and Tobago, and that friendship changed my attitude forever. Neither my marriage to a Mexican-American girl nor my eventual career as a civil rights attorney likely would have happened but for my mission.
So why does the LDS Church get labeled as racist? In my mind, there are two reasons. The first is the issue of the exclusion of blacks from the Priesthood until 1978. The second, if I am being completely honest, is the stark reality that the LDS Church, like every other organization, has some members who “get it” with respect to race and some who don’t.
The controversy over blacks and the priesthood is an awkward one for Mormons to talk about, and for good reason. As the most recent statement from the Church on this issue points out, we aren’t really sure how the exclusion of blacks from the priesthood got started, or why. There is some decent evidence that Joseph Smith ordained at least a few African-Americans to the priesthood during his lifetime. But at some point, that stopped. Because there was no “official” reason ever stated for this, anyone trying to explain the position necessarily was speculating. Much of that speculation was goofy (or worse), and those explanations are often quoted by critics of the Church in order to demonstrate how racist Mormons are.
Personally, it is my belief that the inability to articulate a reason for the exclusion is the reason that Spencer W. Kimball, who became President of the Church in 1973, spent so much time inquiring of the Lord about this issue and seeking direction on what was to be done. We believe that in 1978 he received a divine revelation opening the priesthood to all worthy males. That revelation was accepted as official doctrine of the Church in October 1978.
Now, it is important to understand the way the LDS Church operates. We believe that once the Lord speaks on a subject, anything that anyone has said to the contrary prior to that time is irrelevant. It was said without the light of additional revelation. This precise point was made by Bruce R. McConkie, one of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (which, along with the First Presidency, directs the global affairs of the Church), at the time the revelation was announced. He made clear that anything that had been said about blacks and the Priesthood prior to the revelation was essentially moot. This was a significant statement, because much of what was said came from McConkie himself.
The long and the short of it is that the priesthood has been open to all worthy males for nearly 40 years, and there isn’t much sense in trying to defend a prior policy that never was officially explained anyway. And let’s be completely honest: Most Christian churches that pre-date the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. share a similar problem on the issue of race. After all, it was upstanding Christians who permitted the practice of slavery in the U.S. in the first place. All Christians suffer from the same uncomfortable reality that our attitudes in years past have been affected by the prevailing social views of the times.
The second reason for the “racism” label is more practical. There are some 14 million people on the records of the Church, and some of these folks are the most loving, open-hearted people you will ever meet. Some others need a good whack upside the head. I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t Mormons with racist views, because I have seen it. In my opinion, any racism is too much, and by that definition we have too much. That’s true of a lot of things. We’re imperfect people striving to do better.
But that does not change the fact that this is a worldwide Church that is committed to the welfare of all of God’s children. In my view, racism cannot survive the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Church leadership has been clear on that issue, and I have found that the culture of the Church increasingly has come in line with that counsel.