Just the right amount of liberal Mormon outrage to racism
If you hadn’t read it yet, there’s been drama over the comments a BYU religion professor, Randy Bott, made regarding the church’s treatment of black members in the past in a Washington Post article. From the article:
“God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people “all that he seeth fit.” Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.
“What is discrimination?” Bott asks. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?” Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth — although not in the afterlife — protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.”
I tried writing a post about it and race at Wheat & Tares, but I’ve been (and I suspected this would happen) burnt out from the discussion. Honestly, what is there to discuss? What’s the point?
Outrage is all fine and dandy, but these days, I feel more and more like outrage is a product only privilege can buy. And despite the socio-economic privilege, despite the university education privilege, despite the living-in-a-first-world country privilege, I think my privilege-fueled outrage account is empty. I’m tired.
In any event, Brad at BCC was way better at exhibiting the socially-appropriate level of liberal Mormon outrage to racism. Just look at that title! Pride! Gross Iniquity! Suffering for one’s sins! He cries out to the church to repent:
But because the ban persisted so embarrassingly long, well beyond the time when flagrant racism was considered at all socially acceptable, ending it had deeper consequences. All of the racist ideas that existed in Mormonism had been riveted to the ban, pressed into the service of justifying not just its existence but its necessity. Racist beliefs and doctrines became so intrinsically tied to racist practice that opening the heavens to end the practice also functioned as a repudiation of all the racist false doctrine. Scholars and sociologists like Armand Mauss have chronicled a massive intergenerational shift in racial attitudes within Mormonism around the 1978 revelation. I suspect that some false doctrines can become so entrenched within our consciousness and discourse and our inherently conservative leadership structure so unquestioningly committed to the false doctrines that the only thing God can do to purge the problem is permit us to pridefully and stubbornly use the false doctrines to rationalize and defend indefensible practices long enough that when God finally says “enough!” we really get the message.
God is no more responsible for forcibly eliminating the sins of a Church guided by revelation than He is for forcibly eliminating the sins of individual lives guided by revelation. All must repent. All must acknowledge our sins. We must grieve over the harm they have caused, in full awareness of the terrible evil of it all. The power of the atonement is not limited to individual lives. It is the power that makes it possible for God to work His great work through the imperfect, flawed, often prideful, and always sinful individuals that make up the body of Christ. If yesterday’s embarrassment and its horrible aftermath show us anything, it is that our lack of repentance as a people and as a Church is still a major obstacle to our achieving our full divine potential. The Kingdom’s growth and, by extension, the people of the world are paying a price for our unwillingness to publicly confess our sin, which we instead hide under a cloak of un-Christian folklore and false-doctrine and proud insistence that it wasn’t our fault, it was really God’s. When you have committed a great evil, and when you persisted in committing it for an extended period and at incalculable human cost, anything short of fully acknowledging it for what it truly is, and of anguished, broken-hearted contrition for having done it is not full repentance. And without full repentance, full redemption is not possible, but instead one must continue to suffer for one’s iniquities.
But within this post was something else that was interesting…let’s start with another part of Brad’s post:
There’s a reason why all of the theological or doctrinal rationalizations for the priesthood ban sound racist. They are. And they must necessarily be, because the policy/practice/doctrine they are defending was profoundly, irreducibly, and irredeemably racist. Whether you locate a group’s putative spiritual inferiority or immaturity or shared curse in their genetic makeup, their blood, or their preexistent choices, when you use race as a basis for inferring the spiritual deficiency and, further, if you enact, uphold, and defend an exclusionary policy (for example, a policy which denies the group access to essential saving ordinances), that is just racist. It doesn’t matter if you believe the rationalization in question reflects reality. All racists believe that their ideas about racial differences, superiority, and inferiority reflect reality. It’s still racist.
Very early on, a commenter pointed out how you could read the entire point with “sexist” and “sexism” instead. Brad addressed the point briefly, offering something of a difference. According to him:
…there’s a flip side too, that I think constitutes an important difference between the race-based ban and the sex-based ban: the racial ban withheld exalting ordinances from both black men and women. Eternal and exaltation-related differences between men and women in Mormonism are still significant, but withholding the priesthood from women does not categorically disqualify them from exaltation, as currently understood within Mormonism, the way the racial priesthood/temple ban did to those it applied to.
I’m not trying to minimize the sentiment of your comment, and I find it deeply disturbing that the paternalistic rationalizations put forward by Bott, et al, for (mercifully) withholding the priesthood from less spiritually qualified races seems non-problematic in our discourse when applied to withholding priesthood from the fairer sex.
I launched a series of questions based on these sentiments, but I got the sense that I was cruising for another banning by not sticking closely to the topic so ultimately, I bowed out of the discussion. These were my thought processes:
My first question: is it only bad if another group is deemed to be “spiritually inferior” or “spiritually immature”? If blacks were just deemed “spiritually different,” would that still be racist? In other words, what is the racism: “using race as a basis” or using said basis to infer “spiritual deficiency”?
Next: is it only bad if you can get people to openly admit to believing in said inferiority? (In other words, is all the stuff related to race bad only because people openly admitted/admit that they believed/believe that it was because blacks were/are spiritually immature/inferior/deficient?) Would it matter what the individuals affected felt? (In other words, suppose that the justification was that “blacks are spiritually different. Not better, not worse. Just spiritually different in a way that means they don’t get x.”) Would it matter if certain black individuals thought that that difference implied inferiority?
One of the interesting things was that in discussing with Dave Banack, Brad asserted that at some point, you could get down to definitions of racist acts/explanations/policies that were self-evident. (Dave’s point, in contrast, was that racism often comes down to what a person’s subjectivity.) Yet, one issue is that our awareness and definition of what things are racist or sexist can differ very drastically…obviously, different time periods and different societies have different understandings, but even within one society or one era, there can be different levels of understanding by group.
So, what seems self-evidently sexist to some seems to be something with “an important difference” to Brad. Does Brad believe that important difference makes the LDS policy toward women with respect to the priesthood non-sexist? I don’t know; that’s not really the subject of the post. However, what’s important to note is that Brad’s very definite, forceful rhetoric against racism can easily condemn the church’s position on women.
I mean, in many places, he states things in a way that is precarious enough to have plausible deniability. But late in the comments, he says:
The policy was racist. If you don’t think it’s racist to formally and openly and systematically discriminate on the basis of racial heritage, then you have a racism problem. Full stop.
This is a really good one for the sexist test.
Ultimately, I think the really crucial lines are ones that I’ve quoted before from Brad, but which I’ll quote again:
It doesn’t matter if you believe the rationalization in question reflects reality. All racists believe that their ideas about racial differences, superiority, and inferiority reflect reality. It’s still racist.
I mean, try to put this *anywhere*. Rationalization for treating women differently. Gays. You name it.