In a recent conversation with Doug Fabrizio, I made the comment that the priesthood ban was a collaborative endeavor, with plenty of culpability to spread around throughout the various strata of the Mormon community. I said that it has taken this long for the Mormon community to reckon with their racial past. He responded with a shocked: “2013?! Wow. Ok.”
Over the course of the past year, I’ve said the same thing myself as I have spoken on this topic over the course of the past year.
I am not exempt from the incriminating implications of this statement. It took me over two decades to come to grips with Mormonism’s racial heritage, and more Mormons than not simply assume that people like Walker Lewis, William McCary, and Elijah Ables did not exist. In 2010, John Dehlin noted in a Mormon Matters post that “We are a clean cut, lovable, somewhat defensive, and always ’30 years behind the times’ group of non-traditional Christians…with a somewhat wacky historical past.” Dehlin said it well. “Isn’t it time for us to stand up, with our chests out, and actually OWN who we are?” Starting at 1978, 30 years would take us to 2008, so perhaps I was off by 5.
Some voices on the Facebook threads have asked me to retract my comments, declaring that I was offensive, hurtful, and downright wrong. In the spirit of generosity, some even think that Doug provoked me into a controversial statement that I didn’t really believe or spouted off in the heat of the moment. However, my comments were but a livelier reiteration of what I told Doug in August of this year (the relevant portion begins at 5:00). True, I perhaps didn’t take the initiative to give the full explanation of my comments. That conversation would have included a discussion of how the African Saints affected the Mormon community’s vision of itself as white Americans. I certainly would have given more detail on the “sea-change” that was taking place in the Mormon community I would have mentioned the Mormon community’s struggle to identify its views on apartheid in South Africa during the 1980s; while our record wasn’t as bad as it could have been (the Johannesburg Temple was integrated far sooner than it legally needed to be), pro-apartheid sentiment nevertheless endured in South African communities. We fell far short of the standard that Archbishop Desmond Tutu set. I also would have given more context to the media debacle that came as a result of the release of the Miller-Eccles discussions in the late 1990s. Were church leaders exempt from these failings? Certainly not.
Given our history of insularity, struggles for autonomy, and troubled assimilation into American society, many Intermountain white Mormons have had to write their own guidebooks on how to engage with others about our past. It’s a hard thing to acknowledge who we are. As Dehlin told us in 2010, the time for deflection and projection is over. Were all of us guilty? No. But as Abraham Heschel noted, though only a few are guilty, we are all responsible.