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Mormonism and race in 2014

December 16, 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.

I wrote:

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.

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10 Comments
  1. Seth R. permalink

    So this argument boils down to essentially – “Mormons tend to be conservative ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ kind of people who don’t have a lot of empathy for what they consider ‘whining’ about how the system is rigged and unfair”?

  2. Seth,

    Almost…It’s more like: “Mormonism sacralizes the conservative ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ concept. It used to follow that to a theological conclusion (e.g., white and delightsome in the afterlife), but now it doesn’t even have that.”

  3. Seth R. permalink

    Yeah… I guess that’s where you lost me. I don’t view the “white and delightsome” thing as much of a loss.

    I mean… doesn’t the modern LDS rediscovery of grace theology in the Book of Mormon provide a few tools here?

  4. White and delightsome *was* how Mormonism implemented grace w/r/t its works theology.

    If you are saved after all that you can do, then what does that look like with respect to race? Well, for race, it’s being as righteous as you can in this life. But you can’t actually change your race (which is analogous to the idea that you can’t actually save yourself…you can’t actually cleanse yourself of sin nature.)

    So, that’s where grace comes in. Jesus picks up the difference by turning you white and delightsome.

    Vile? Yes. But now we have the same basic concept (that is “respectability politics”) but the fact is no matter how “respectable” (read: nonthreatening and “white”) that I act, I can never be white. I will always be suspect, threatening, thuggish, or uppity because it was never about my actions but about my appearance.

    Mormonism has no solution for this. You can’t use your agency to get out of that.

  5. Seth R. permalink

    You might have a point, though I’m still having a brain freeze on getting it.

    Just curious, while thinking on these topics, I came up with the personal theory (as a believing Mormon) that perhaps appearance is somewhat mutable in the Celestial Kingdom – that your appearance can be in some sense a function of who you are. Quasi-shape-shifting perhaps. I even once played with the idea that gender might be mutable in the Celestial Kingdom (briefly mind you – there are a lot of quotes opposing that idea).

    How would you psychoanalyze what I’m doing there?

    I’m not super-wedded to this, so I am merely curious what your reaction would be.

  6. I don’t see how you would ground that in Mormonism — especially not the mutable gender idea. I mean, in Mormonism, there’s a lot riding on gender being eternal, and those gender differences mattering. So if someone could simply change genders — and that would not affect anything else about their personality — then that would seem to go against Mormonism.

    Even from a more constructionist viewpoint, I would say that the experiences one has living as (insert trait, insert appearance here), even if it doesn’t have an inherent or intrinsic impact on one’s being (“who you are”), should still have an experiential effect.

    (P.S., this is why the idea of becoming white and delightsome or the idea of being straight in the afterlife, even if it is a “grace”-ful solution to a worldview rife with racism and racialism, is a problematic solution. Changing someone from black to white, gay to straight, etc., essentially turns them into a different person. You can’t just say, “everything about you is the same…except now you’re white/straight”. You change that and you have cascades through a lot of other areas.)

    So what would it mean that one’s appearance could be in some sense a function of who they are?

  7. Seth R. permalink

    If you want to use a less controversial example, but one personally important to me – what about Attention Deficit Disorder?

    This condition has very much defined the way I think and my identity growing up. A lot of people in the culture talk about curing it. But there are many in the ADD population, myself included sometimes, who don’t want to be cured of the condition – because they feel it is part of who they are. Some ADD people actually just medicate when they want certain behavior briefly and the rest of the time carry on unmedicated.

    So the question becomes, what happens to this aspect of me in the Celestial Kingdom?

  8. Well, aren’t there scriptures that can be used both ways? Alma 34:34 “the same spirit will have power to possess your body…” vs…whatever scriptures advocate for the perfection (however problematically defined) of bodies.

    I mean, I absolutely can see how that is a part of who someone is — whether they would want it cured or not, if it *were* removed, everyone who knew you would have to get to know basically a brand new person.

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