Today, the always-thoughtful Jana Riess posted a short piece criticizing commentators who continue to defend the priesthood restriction on peoples of African descent. These critics suppose that by critiquing comments that even ancient Book of Mormon prophets such as Nephi and Jacob critiqued, we must be seeking to undermine the authority of the Church, its standing, its very existence.
That Riess warns against idol worship of prophets is all the more salient. We talk of cars, and money, and glamor, and looks as the pressing idols of the day. We have also grandfathered in social media into the pantheon of false gods. But the greatest idols are those that can present themselves as so ordinary, so matter-of-factual, that we almost feel silly calling them idols at all. Spencer W. Kimball condemned the military-industrial complex: “We commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance.”
And what was the idol of choice for the Saints of the late-nineteenth-century? They had been seeking it for three generations: not independence, as important as it was. Not industry, even if the railroad had come to town. It was more pervasive than that–the simple quality of whiteness. In 1893, George Q. Cannon heralded from the rooftops that “the purity of the Caucasian race is more likely to be preserved in our Territory than in many other portions of the United States…Our people are not of mongrel breeds.” (George Q. Cannon, “An Ex-Editor’s Sunday Talk,” Deseret News, February 25, 1893, 14, as quoted in Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables, 2013, 49).
Can we please move beyond this? For generations, the Saints lived as a mountain sect of white folks all trying very hard to be white. Almost from the beginning, the Saints have found themselves in the crosshairs of America’s racial weaponry. In 1834, they were considered to be “black Mormons” by the national press. In 2012, Mitt Romney seemed just a little too white to be presidential material. So it’s understandable that the Mormon community would have a raw nerve as pertaining to race.
But telling ourselves that “race doesn’t have anything to do with it” doesn’t make it go away. Telling black people to “get over it” doesn’t eliminate not only 300 years of family history but their daily lived experience. The Mormon community deeply (and rightly) values its heritage, and we memorialize it in every conceivable way. But when we tell people of African descent to forget the lessons of their past–a past in which white folks have often not been the good guys–we reveal that we are not using our history as a gospel lesson but as a method of establishing a cultural hegemony.
Only a couple months ago, I was having a conversation with an older gentleman about the struggles a mutual friend of ours had with racial discrimination a generation ago. His response, as he put his hand on my shoulder: “well, I don’t blame him. They were the scum of the earth in his neighborhood.” In my introduction to Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables, I spoke of the Saints’s need to understand our capacity to create an atmosphere of exclusivity, of how it takes a village to exclude a child. And when we indulge in it, we like our exclusivity to come with a smile and a pat on the back, all while we silently draw lines between who We are and who They are. The fact that only six months ago, an African-American historian could ask me with a straight face: “How could black people join a faith that is so foundationally racist?” tells us that the Saints have an image problem.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I find a powerful cosmology–one that binds families, communities, and
souls together. It motivates people to serve, to give, to connect themselves to others in a Westernized world that devalues connectivity, that highlights non-commitment, and convinces us that at day’s end, is is only our own journey that matters.
But that cosmology will not work when we also bind ourselves not to people but to bad ideas, bad doctrines, and bad policies.
Dealing with controversy does not mean undermining LDS President Thomas S. Monson or his apostles. It does not mean that we suddenly want to go running down the aisle at General Conference declaring our opposition. Nor does it mean that we’ve taken up the hobby of speaking ill of those who lead the Church. This is not about scholarship, documents, liberalism, conservatism, property rights, religious rights, or politics at all.
It just means being honest, being candid, and being kind. It means caring enough about those who have different experiences to learn a little about them. That’s something we all can do, whether we live in the suburbs of Utah county, Chicago’s South Side, or rural North Carolina.
Russell Stevenson is the author of Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables and For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2013