The Mormon Church and Race Relations

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.

Mormons Make Good Americans

One of the major points which I brought up in dialogue with the Mormons I have been meeting with for the past eight months or so is the fact that their church has a history of violence. I have not made a study of all the various stories of violence in Mormon history, but I understand that there are those who have worked to show that there has been a lot of it.

I don’t know about all that. What I am definitely aware of is the account of the death of Joseph Smith. It seems that, according to the LDS church’s own history, Smith died in a gunfight after wounding two people himself. I find this odd, to say the least. While it’s apparently true that he was trapped in a jail building which was being overrun by an angry lynch mob that was coming to kill him, I just can’t see his end as a heroic one – certainly not one which gives evidence of his being a true prophet. I would have expected the founding prophet of the one true church to have gone meekly and humbly to the gallows and let himself be martyred in a peaceable way – or at least to trust God to get him out of the situation. But instead, Smith went out in blaze of desperation and hostility.

Of course, there is nothing special about this when we remember that violence, especially “redemptive” violence, is the norm for the world and, sadly, for much of the church. In fact, many Christians in America and elsewhere, would have no problem, in principle, with Smith’s use of force in self-defense. But even such Christians would probably agree that it makes Smith’s claim to be God’s prophet, the one who is restoring the true faith to the world, ring quite hollow. (Such Christians as agree with my thinking here might ask themselves why it seems wrong that a true prophet would resort to such violence, but it seems just fine for ‘ordinary’ believers to do so. But that’s another topic.)

For my part, committed as I am to the belief that Christ’s way is the way of peace and non-violence, this historic account of Smith’s demise is, all on its own, sufficient ground to doubt the credibility of the Mormon message. I know this beyond any doubt: If it were actually the case that the church had fallen away 1800 or 1900 years ago and that the true, full gospel had only been restored in the last 140 years through the work of a young prophet from New York, the church established by that prophet would be a peace church – not another church which legitimizes the use of violent force against people. The fact is, Mormons make good Americans in the sense of being very much on board with the idea of the heroism of the military and the myth of redemptive violence. (The likes of Glenn Beck come to mind.) I would have expected the true, restored church to be more like the Mennonites in this regard.

This connects to the issue of the LDS church’s pattern of racial and sexual inequality. But we’ll have to save that for another post.

Talking with Mormons in a Cold Garage

Somewhere back around October or November, 2009, we were visited by a couple of Mormon “elders.” They were very nice young guys, and I stood in the driveway and had a pleasant conversation with them. Not long after that, they came back and we visited again for a while. Before too long, we arranged for them to come by on a semi-regular basis. And by the time we came into this calendar year (I think it was sometime around then), we were meeting for an hour every Wednesday afternoon. Sometimes I couldn’t keep the appointment, and a few times, they couldn’t, but for the most part, we have done it each week for months now. We usually had to meet in my garage because of licensing restrictions involved with Shelly’s daycare business. In the winter months, it was often pretty cold (and a bit messy), but we muddled through.
Over the course of these eight months or so, I have met a number of Mormon folks in the context of these conversations. From what I understand, their mission leaders sometimes switch them around from one territory to another. And sometimes one will finish his two-year mission and head home. And I suppose there are sometimes other reasons that one or the other would be replaced by a new face. So it was that the two young men who sat in my backyard with me yesterday (it was a much nicer day than most so far this year 🙂 ) were not the same two who had originally come by back in the fall. Also, for a period of several weeks during the cold and rainy part of our winter, they were bringing with them an older gentleman from the local “ward.”
Several weeks ago, I gave two of them my e-mail address and the address of The Long War. While they are on their mission, they are under certain restrictions which include something of a suspension of e-mail and internet use. But they took down the info and said that they would be in contact when their missions were over. For one of them, that comes this weekend. He will be back in his home town next week, and I hope that he is able to drop by and leave a comment here. Likewise, I hope to hear from as many of the others as possible, if for no other reason than to find out more about them than I could while they were on their missions.
I have been planning to write some posts about my interaction with these guys for months now. But I am only now getting around to it. And I suppose that that is partly because I can sense that our visits are winding down. Actually, I don’t know whether we will have any more. The elder who just had his final Wednesday with me was probably the most constant presence over the whole thing. And I get the feeling that, with his absence, our visits will soon come to an end. But that’s okay, particularly because it seems that we’re all talked out.
Anyway, I really enjoyed getting to know them—insofar as I was able (I expect to write about the difficulty in that regard in a future post). And I thought I would simply use this first post in the “Mormons Talks” category by saying what I have said so far and then saying a fond “hello” to them.
So, to Elders Wyler, Byington, Smartt, Burkett; to Hal and to all the other elders who have been by to visit, Hello! I have really enjoyed our discussions. You are always welcome here, and if you come by during non-daycare hours, we’ll have you in and probably feed you dinner! 🙂 If you get a chance to drop by The Long War (TLW), please leave a greeting and comment on something.

Coming soon (Lord-willing), I hope to offer a few posts offering my thoughts on LDS teaching and so forth having had the past two-thirds of a year to discuss it with its primary representatives.
Shalom!