At our very last visit a few weeks ago, I asked my two young Mormon visitors about the LDS church’s record on racism. This is very much like the question of violence which I wrote about in my post on June 28th. By this, I mean that the teaching of the Mormon church and its historic track record on issues of race do not seem to accord well with what we might expect from the one true, newly reestablished church of God.
I am certainly no authority on the subject, and I would invite those who know more than I do, whether Mormon or not, to educate us all a bit in the comments section. But until someone can factually say better, I will aver that, at a minimum, the problem of racial inequality does very telling damage to Mormon testimony.
Whether there is true equality in the church today, I do not know. It would be good to have someone provide the details of when and how, for example, the priesthood(s), and the rite of baptism, and so forth were extended to Native American and African American people. Was it in the 1970s, in response to the civil rights movement? The truth is, however, that it really does not matter when or how—unless it was right from the start, by order of Joseph Smith himself—that there was full and free fellowship offered to all people of all races. It means nothing if such measures only come as politically correct gestures in response to the broader culture. The world I have grown up in (I am now 40) is one in which public opinion has grown more and more intolerant of racism—an intolerance I, for one, celebrate. But it seems that it has been the direction of this world’s feeling about race which has led the Mormon church to do the right thing, not the other way around.
Now it is sadly true that that which I would call the legitimate church also has a much less than perfect record on the issue of race. Christians of all backgrounds have to admit that our people have all too often failed to lead the world in breaking down racial divides. There have been Christian slave-holders. There have been white Christians who have kept people of other colors from enjoying the social freedoms that they themselves cherish. This is a true embarrassment to us.
But as I have pointed out to my Mormon missionary friends, that is not the whole story of the church on race. There have also been many Christians who have helped to lead in such things as the abolition movement or the civil rights movement and so on. There have been Christian churches which have helped African American people to worship the Lord freely (Methodists and Baptists are notable examples). Some have done better than that and have worshiped alongside them as equals.
It is because of a big-tent ecclesiology that I can say that my people (the church) have done both embarrassingly badly and heroically nobly when it comes to race. And this is just like the issue of peace vs. violence. While you may have many Lutherans or Baptists or Presbyterians ready to do violence in the name of their earthly state, you also have Mennonites and Quakers and others refusing to do so and reminding their hawkish brothers of our Lord’s call to peace. Similarly, while you may have some Christians failing to live out the full teaching of the Lord in regard to race relations, you have others who work to see the walls broken down and true unity displayed. In neither case is the testimony of the whole church of Jesus Christ at stake, because the poor examples are offset by the good ones.
The LDS church does not have this luxury. (Nor does the Watchtower, for that matter.) Any religious body that claims to be THE true church has to get everything right. If we are to believe that God the Father and Jesus Christ really showed up in the woods in New York in the early nineteenth century to reveal to the young Joseph Smith the one, true church, then it is fair for us to expect that Joseph Smith would be a pioneer in areas like racial equality. But quite to the contrary, he brings forward a teaching which sounds more like that of Aryan racists than anything else. Think that language is too strong? Maybe it is. But what should we call doctrine which looks at the dark skin of Native Americans and sees as the “obvious” meaning of the phenomenon that their ancestors were cursed with dark skin for their wickedness. And even if it were true that that was the “cause” of their dark skin—and that it was the curse of Ham which gave Africans their dark skin—where would be the cause for excluding such people from full participation in the fellowship of God’s people?
Okay, to put forward my main point one time: It would be fine if the Mormon church were to say something like, “We goofed earlier in our history. We failed to live out God’s love and grace in relationship to non-white people. We have corrected this teaching and this problem. We ask that people forgive us for this failure, and we invite them into full fellowship with us.”
But since they are the “one true church,” which has had “the fullness of the gospel” since around the 1830s, they cannot say “we were wrong.” Instead, they have to say, “God has given a new notice to our twelve apostles. He says it’s okay for us to open up the priesthood to non-white people now.” Is it any wonder that people of color didn’t line up to join the church in droves upon hearing that announcement?
And this leads me to ask, has anyone ever seen a Mormon missionary who was anything other than white? I certainly haven’t. With the singular exception of one Hispanic Mormon family, I have never met any Mormons who were not white. Try this on for a bit of an anecdotal info: When I go the faculty directory page of BYU Religion department (http://religion.byu.edu/directory.php), I count 72 professors. Of these, I count 68 white men, 3 white women, and 1 Korean gentleman.
Mormon or otherwise, someone please tell me, if I am missing something here.