Mormonism and race in 2014
I was having a conversation with a friend about a few lines from my previous post. (This conversation was in a relatively private location, so I’ll try to keep things anonymous). From my earlier post, I had written:
I think that if Mormons were to candidly have racial conversations, that sort of thinking would possibly come out — that is, if or when people could even admit that there is a racial dimension (rather than merely a “family” dimension). The basic system probably wouldn’t be criticized as unjust.
My friend wanted me to elaborate on what the “basic system” was.
The “basic system” is that criminal justice, meritocracy, etc., are basically “fair” and “accurate” systems. The basic system is that people get where they are, etc., primarily through their own actions.
As of right now, on issues like race (but also orientation, I think), I think a lot of Mormons don’t even recognize that there are some non-chosen aspects in play (e.g., race, orientation). But I think that even if Mormons were to say, “OK, being gay isn’t chosen, and it really does play differently in our social and theological system”…or, on race, “OK, being black isn’t chosen, and it really does play differently in our social system”, they probably wouldn’t say, “Well, our social system needs to be changed.” Rather, they would say, “black people need to be more respectable.” (Or, in the gay example, gay people need to be celibate.)
In 2014, most people wouldn’t say that a righteous black person will become white in the afterlife. But we do commonly see comments about LGBT people being straight, correct gender, having opportunity to marry, etc., in the afterlife, so, I’m not sure if Mormon theology actually really can cope with blackness except as something to be overcome.
The friend asked me if, within a Mormon context, the only way to reframe the underlying assumption (that blackness is to be overcome) would be through revelation.
I thought about this for a little bit, and then concluded that yes, a revelation would be necessary…but also quite doubtful. As I wrote:
Sure, I think that would work out. Because this sort of belief in meritocracy isn’t just a folk belief (as I think it is in most secular contexts) — rather, it is the core of Mormon libertarian free will theology. So, the revelation wouldn’t be, “blackness doesn’t need to be overcome.” But rather, “So, free will/agency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
I don’t think Mormonism could have such a revelation though.
My friend’s responded by suggesting that perhaps agency “isn’t all it’s cracked up to be” because in Mormonism, there are underlying theological assumptions that birth is a judgement of actions we take in the premortal existence.
I have to say that I wasn’t anticipating this. Indeed, throughout my previous posts, I hadn’t been thinking at all about the premortal existence.
What I realized is that there is still a basic misunderstanding on thinking about Mormonism and race in 2014.
I think it’s popular to see that Mormonism’s basic problem in race is stuff that happened in the past. For example, past teachings that blacks were less valiant in the premortal existence, or past teachings that dark skin might be a curse from God to discourage intermingling. A ban on the priesthood based (in whole or in part) on those sorts of reasonings.
But here’s the thing…while that may be a rough spot for Mormons on race (as even I had to admit…on top of my misgivings, there is that)…it’s not all.
In 2014, Mormons problem with race isn’t that Mormons believe that people are black because they were less valiant in the premortal existence. I mean, I’m hoping that most people think that is just a cultural concept rather than a theological truth claim. And I’m hoping that most Mormons today think that is a *wrong* cultural concept.
Rather, I think that the origin of black people (or, even, say, of LGBT people) is considered irrelevant these days. Mormonism’s problem with race isn’t so explicit, then…it’s based on a neutral (you could say…color blind) belief in the fairness and efficacy of agency, free will, meritocracy, and so on. Since we are agents to act and not be acted upon, our fates in this world are mostly (if not totally) our faults. So, if black people are socio-economically worse off, prosecuted more, jailed more, then that’s just because black people were not respectable enough.
To suggest that the system is not fair is simply incompatible with basic Mormon precepts. If an agent can be (and is) “acted upon”, then this calls into question the basic system.
Sadly, the Mormonism of yesteryear was at least consistent with itself. As I discussed before, it recognized the value of works (e.g., being respectable/righteous). It recognized the limitation of works (i.e., you can’t ever be respectable enough to be white). It recognized the humanly insurmountable problem (i.e., race), and proposed a divine solution (i.e., one will become white and delightsome through God’s power.)
I am not saying this is the solution I would want. I would want the solution to be that the entire system is rigged and unfair, that God’s grace will be to cast aside the entire racist scaffolding and wipe away the tears from racial injustice.
But Mormonism in 2014 isn’t going to go there (and probably can’t — I think free will and agency is just too important to Mormonism). And instead, because most people don’t — in 2014 — say things like “being righteous in this life will make you white and delightsome in the next”, we have a color-blind theology that just doesn’t work — because you can’t ever become white just by being respectable.