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Just the right amount of liberal Mormon outrage to racism

March 2, 2012

randy bottIf 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.

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10 Comments
  1. I was going to say, Homophobia. But you beat me to the punch in the fourth to last word in your post.

  2. Seth R. permalink

    This also merely begs the question of “OK…. so it’s racist. Why is that bad?”

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it was bad. Our society has made a conscious decision that having different standards based on race is a bad thing. The conclusion is that race is not a big enough factor in real-world differences to justify discrimination (or at least, it shouldn’t be). I do not disagree with this conclusion.

    It gets trickier when talking about the sexes though – because now you have actual physical and biological differences that simply don’t apply when you are talking about black man and a white man (or two women of different races). You also have that whole problematic sex thing. We aren’t just talking about who gets more recognition, or more money, or whatever anymore. We’re talking about children and the future survival of the species.

    This is why I’m suspicious of attempts to analogize sexism to racism, or the homosexual movement to the Civil Rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr. They aren’t the same thing. The stakes are a lot higher and more biologically fundamental.

    But the homosexual and women’s rights movements have largely been successful in getting society to automatically and thoughtlessly make the analogy anyway. We automatically assume “racism = bad” and therefore “sexism = bad” and therefore “not applying the marriage label to homosexual couples = bad.”

    Don’t question it.

    But it’s kind of a lousy chain of logic. For one thing, was racism always bad in every respect? I agree that as a society, it’s simply too dangerous for us to do anything but presume that it was. But that doesn’t mean it was always automatically bad. That brings into question a foundational assumption of the entire argument. Especially when you try to extend the assumption of “ism = bad” to other things were the practical utilitarian argument is less certain (I am highly unconvinced of the utility in societal endorsement of gay marriage – as opposed to mere civil unions to protect basic fairness).

    I guess I just don’t like how everyone is so cocksure about the inevitability of all their logical jumps.

    It reminds me of the Mormon who gets up and unhesitatingly declares that:

    “Joseph Smith saw God = Book of Mormon is true = Brigham Young was legit = every prophet after him was legit = the church organization they came up with is perfect and God-given = my Bishop is the ‘one true and living bishop for the Kentucky Whalapalooza ward boundary area”

    Oh really?

  3. Seth R. permalink

    Bah, didn’t subscribe.

  4. The need for all the racist apologetics, I think, vanishes, once you abandon the authoritarian proposition that everything taught or held by Church leaders represents the will of God. It’s that proposition that forces a lot of Mormons to retreat to the position that “The reason for the ban is just a mystery which we will never understand.”

    But once you abandon that proposition, not only do you throw open wide the gates on issues like homosexuality and the ordination of women… You really have to deal with the much more fundamental problem of How do Mormons discern any religious truth at all?

    (Which I think is a very healthy question.)

  5. Seth, I agree that responsible discussion of the same-sex marriage issue acknowledges that race-based discrimination and sexual-orientation-based discrimination are completely different things.

    The question of whether homophobia is wrong or not needs to be settled on the merits of the issues related to sexual orientation… You can’t just assert (as some do) that “racism is clearly wrong, and homophobia is just like racism, ergo, homophobia is clearly wrong.”

    That having been said, as you’ve probably guessed, I think the facts of the case related to sexual orientation strongly suggest that it is wrong to legally discriminate against same-sex couples.

  6. Seth R. permalink

    I don’t think the need vanishes John. You just shove it under the rug.

    This is basically one of the Evangelical approaches – abandon the fixed moving authority structure and “hallelujah – we don’t have to be responsible for anything anymore!”

    But that doesn’t mean the racism never happened, nor does it give you a free get-out-of-jail free card simply because you’ve shattered one big, easy to spot target into a million tiny constantly moving targets.

  7. Seth R. permalink

    As for “homophobia” I simply consider the word to be name-calling as a substitute for real argument.

    The fact that it’s becoming popularly accepted means nothing.

    It simply means that it’s a “popularly accepted” substitute for real argument.

  8. Seth,

    One of the things that is striking about the BCC post is that it doesn’t really strongly establish the case for legitimate differences and legitimate differences in treatment. So, if you use (insert trait here) to exclude/differentially treat people in x ways, then that IS wrong…according to the logic.

    I think in most cases, people are going to realize that different cases can mean different things…but where they will disagree is in which cases mean different things.

    John,

    Even if asking how Mormons discern religious truth should be a healthier question, it’s a more dangerous question — especially, I think, for the leaders trying to direct the ship. I think that’s why continually they stick to the, “Don’t know” answer…

  9. Seth R. permalink

    Well, yes. I’ve always considered BCC to be a part of that culture of assumptions I mentioned.

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