For the handful who find their way here, I don’t really blog anymore. I podcast. www.mormonexpositor.com
For the handful who find their way here, I don’t really blog anymore. I podcast. www.mormonexpositor.com
As a result of its interpretation of the Bible as forbidding interracial dating, Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina did not admit any black students prior to 1971. Between 1971 and 1975 it admitted married, but not single, black students and in 1975 began to admit both married and single black students. Nevertheless, it continued to forbid interracial dating, punishing (or in the first instance simply not admitting) those who engaged in it. This was a very costly principle. In 1982, after years of wrangling in court, it was finally determined that the IRS was within its rights to revoke BJU’s tax exempt status based on its racist policies retroactive to 1970, to collect over a million dollars in back taxes and to collect taxes going forward.
The institution did not fold on this issue immediately. Instead, it rightly endured public scorn and ridicule for another 18 years which crescendoed in 2000 after a visit from then candidate George W. Bush caused the national press to refocus tremendous negative attention on the institution. And then it was dropped, largely without comment. In 2008 something interesting occurred. Call it a pang of conscience or a cynical reassessment of where their self-interests lay, but BJU apologized. And did it rather eloquently, if not perfectly:
For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it.
In so doing, we failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandment to love others as ourselves. For these failures we are profoundly sorry. Though no known antagonism toward minorities or expressions of racism on a personal level have ever been tolerated on our campus, we allowed institutional policies to remain in place that were racially hurtful.
In the moral landscape of Christian America, Bob Jones University does not exactly represent a benchmark for tolerance of any kind and certainly not racial tolerance. And yet, here they are, in the language of their own principles, repenting.
On February 28, 2012, the Washington Post ran an article entitled The Genesis of a church’s stand on race, which contained these cringe-worthy paragraphs from an interview from BYU Religion Professor Randy Bott:
“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.”
In light of something so embarrassing being said in one of the most widely read and circulated newspapers in the country and in light of the very negative perception it creates about the doctrine of the church, there was no question that the church would respond. Would this be its Bob Jones moment? In a year where the presumptive nominee of the Republican party is a Mormon and so much attention and focus is on the church, would it, 24 years after lifting the priesthood ban, finally and unequivocally repudiate the doctrine that animated it?
No. Instead, after stating its current view that racism is wrong, of the priesthood ban it said, “It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church…” In a later and further press release it added, “The Church unequivocally condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.” I will leave it to others to take the hot air out of the plea of ignorance, but suffice it to say it is not defensible. Of course, no one can disagree with the present condemnation of racism “both inside and outside the church.” But what about the past racism of the church? Where is the institutional mia culpa? How does a church grow a professor of religion at its flagship institution of higher learning who never encounters some authority (because none exists) that flatly and unequivocally states past beliefs about the inferiority of blacks are wrong?
Any outside observer who thinks about it for long realizes Mormon racism was grounded in the identical thing that racism at Bob Jones University and every other Christian faith was, namely: the ignorance and pecuniary interest of a nation that traded and enslaved human beings, mostly from West Africa, and looked to the Bible for moral justification. Over the long, painful, and still incomplete process of letting those ideas go, many people of faith began to envision a God that could never approve of racism. If God is the very definition of good, and racism is bad, then it could have not have come from God. Instead, human beings are to blame for this evil and when a Christian does wrong, a Christian repents. Including institutions. And repent many of them have. So why not the Mormon church? Because so much more is at stake. Come now and let us reason together.
The Mormons who I know are not more racist than other people (I think everyone is at least a little) and most of them, I imagine, would readily agree a just, loving God has never approved of slavery or racism. Many of them also say, in my experience, the racist men who led the church prior to the ban being lifted were just like other racist men of their times. But here is the paradox, they weren’t like other men. These were the prophets, seers and revelators of God himself. So being in touch with deity as they were, is it not fair to think they should have had a small leg up on seeing the light on this issue? If God hates racism, then the prophetic mantle should have been a huge benefit in identifying maybe the most important issue of the 20th century. Instead it was an impediment. If you believe your predecessors spoke for God, then you defer to the words of Brigham Young and others who say blacks, as the descendants of Cain and Ham, are cursed and cannot hold the priesthood. You also believe the Book of Mormon, which speaks of dark skin as a curse from God, and the Book of Abraham, which speaks of Pharaoh as a descendant of Cain being unable to hold the priesthood, to be authentic. So…as Randy Bott said, sometimes God does discriminate.
So, from the prospective of the current stewards of Gondor, could their 20th century predecessors have simply gotten it wrong on the most important moral issue of their time? I don’t think it would be hard for them to admit they did get it wrong, except for the poison pill that comes with that admission: when they said the ban was doctrine, when they said it was because blacks were of a cursed lineage, when they said they were inquiring of God on this issue (allegedly to no avail), God never made a peep to tell them they were wrong. Profoundly wrong. It would be an admission that the heavens were closed. They cannot admit this, and they can’t any longer explicitly defend the racism, so they choose instead to make an oblique statement that they just don’t know why this doctrine and practice persisted for so long. They choose to believe all of this happened at the direction of deity. That’s right, God is the racist. Or at least he is willing to let his dark skinned children suffer at the hands of his elect for a good long while, because they aren’t ready or some such. That is something so fundamentally inconsistent with the conception of a loving and just God, it simply cannot be attributed to the familiar “no one is perfect” refrain with a straight face.
Which leaves us here: it is harder and more hurtful for the brethren to admit there was no communication from heaven correcting them when they were fundamentally wrong on the most important moral issue of the era than it is for them to insinuate God is the mysteriously racist source of those doctrines and policies. And this is why they don’t condemn their racist past and its teachings. Better to believe God is a racist then to figuratively lay down the prophetic mantle. Were they to do that, what moral force would their current prescriptions and proscriptions have? Would people not, then, be free to conclude when their own sense of right and wrong conflicts with the teachings of the brethren, the tie shouldn’t go to the church? On gay marriage? On the roles of women? The harm to their mantra of obedience would be significant. The harm to done to faith would be as well. On the other side of the scales? Just that it is the right thing to do (let the consequence follow). And that being the moral inferior of Bob Jones University is embarrassing.
This blog has been cross posted to Mormon Expression Blogs.
The awesome Circling the Wagons conference over the weekend has me thinking of this question again: How much more can the church reform as respects homosexuality? One can clearly point to reform in how it is talked about over the last 30+ years. The brethren no longer talk about it being purely a choice, or the result of bad parenting or caused by masturbation. There is much more talk about compassion toward LGBTQ persons.
Marlin Jensen makes an apology of sorts earlier in the year, the Bishop at Circling the Wagons conference who also apologizes and calls for straight members to repent. These all seem like good signs. But what are the outer limits of this?
My belief is that the church has already given everything away theologically that it can on this issue by the seeming acknowledgment that, yes, some people are born that way. The immediate redaction of Boyd K. Packer’s comments to the contrary in a recent General Conference are good evidence that this ground has been given up, as are Dalin Oaks comments from several years ago. But what further ground is there to give? Can it allow that same sex intimacy is not sinful in the face of the core doctrine that eternal progression and exaltation happens in male/female pairs? Can allow persons in sexually active gay relationships into the temples? Can it retract its statement that gender is an eternal characteristic? I think the answer is no. This is not like the racial priesthood ban which can be characterized as based mostly on speculation that calcified into doctrine and and can also be blamed on crazy Uncle Brigham. That wiggle room simply doesn’t exist here. The church that has branded itself as being about families cannot not redefine what a family is without abandoning its claim to revelation and authority, in my opinion.
Where it CAN make some progress, I believe, is in toning down its rhetoric and in attempting to make church a more welcoming place for LGBTQ people. But I strongly suspect that this will never go beyond a deeply rooted view that such people are afflicted in some sense with a burden which must simply be borne. Members can be taught to be less judgmental, to be friendlier. More explicit statements calling for compassion can be made that that can begin to cancel out many of the fallacious arguments that surrounded its support of Prop 8. But will this be enough? Isn’t that sort of like saying “Brother Jones we love you, and are so sorry that you bear the mark of Cain, but please by all means try to feel welcome here!” Ecclesiastical apartheid was never sine qua non of the church, but nuclear families are.
As I watch so many Mormons begin to “see the light” in terms of really feeling compassion for people who want to keep a foot in the church but at the same time no forego all of the very best things in life (marriage, love, children, etc.), I simply cannot grasp how the fruit of that compassion can ever be full incorporation into the church. So even when acceptance, compassion and love are maximized and judgment, fear and hate are eradicated, the message to LGBTQ people will be that God’s plan for them is celibacy. I would hope it would be otherwise, but I think this is a maze without an exit and I don’t think simply saying that past progress is good evidence that the church will fundamentally change what it is at some future date is a sufficient response to how this knot gets untied.
Where, I ask, is the theological wiggle room here?
Thank you, thank you, thank you to the Crescent 16th Ward which has quite inadvertently, and I am sure very innocently, given us all something Mormon related to write about in time for Halloween! If you haven’t heard, the flier at right circulated this week inviting folks to a Trunk-Or-Treat (but “please no masks or cross-gender dressing”) and highlighted Peggy Fletcher Stack in her story in the Salt Lake Tribune.
The local Bishop defended the flier as, he believed, accurately mirroring church policy. Indeed my personal experience, as well as the comments of many others I know, confirms that these two rules are the norm in most wards and stakes. For parties of course. Don’t think I have ever seen someone wear mask to church, well…can of worms, never mind. As for cross-dressing at church, that I am pretty sure I have seen.
In the multiple discussions I have read about this, the first line of defense, as ever, is that this is not in fact the policy or doctrine of the church. But what policy or doctrine is on any given topic in a church that does not have creeds is not always easy to detect. Of course, it is quiet clear on some things. On other things there is a complex analysis to be undertaken where several factors must be weighed. I list them here in order of importance with point values assigned. Basically the higher score you have the more likely it is you are looking at policy or doctrine:
25 – A written statement signed by the First Presidency and appended to the Doctrine and Covenants or sold in a handsome framed version at Deseret Book.
15 – Emanates from a burning bush, heavenly messenger or audible but invisible voice.
10 – Spoken in General Conference by the President of the Church.
10 – Written in the Ensign by the President of the Church or First Presidency.
10 – Is found in either Handbook of Instruction.
9 – Spoken in General Conference by an Apostle or non-President member of the First Presidency.
9 – Written in the Ensign by an Apostle.
8 – Spoken or written in some other church publication by a member of the First Presidency or Apostle.
8 – Is stated anywhere in correlated materials.
7 – Said by a General Authority in any setting.
1 – Said by a CES employee.
1 – Said at EFY.
1 – It makes logical sense.
HOWEVER, take away 10 points if said by Boyd K. Packer, Bruce R. McConkie, Mark E. Petersen, Ezra Taft Benson on the subject of communism or has not been mentioned in the last twenty years. For something that was redacted from scripture subtract 5 points, from any other publication subtract 3. If it makes no sense at all subtract 1.
No points are either added or subtracted for it either being common knowledge or no one ever having heard of it. If it is found in the Journal of Discourses, History of the Church, King Follet discourses, was said by Brigham Young or said by any apostle who was later excommunicated it is definitively not doctrine.
Let’s apply this test. Handbook 2 section 13.6.25 says that the church cannot sponsor an activity where masks are worn (except plays). Handbook 2 is a governing document of the church and as such clearly represents the minds of the Brethren (right?), but it is silent as to why masks are prohibited. So it comes from the top and one could easily begin to ask if they are not okay at church are they okay elsewhere? Does it make sense to take a chance when the will of God at least as to one setting has been laid out? But many people who are more liberally minded will simply say, meh, not going to pay attention to this. +10. This one looks like policy for sure.
As Brittny Goodsell Jones points out in her 2009 Sunstone piece on this topic,there is very little on cross-dressing except for the BYU Honor Code which at the time (but apparently not currently) stated:
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and BYU affirm that sexual relationships outside the covenant of marriage are inappropriate. Examples include but are not limited to the following: extra-marital relations, promiscuity or predatory behavior, aberrant behavior, solicitation of sex, homosexual conduct, and cross-dressing.”
Though no longer on BYU’s website, this statement still appears substantially in this form on the BYU Hawaii honor code website. So if you dig hard enough, you can find a statement from the Brethren on this topic, this time laying out very clearly that cross-dressing is inappropriate homosexual behavior but there is a lot of room to debate whether this would apply to a child’s Halloween costume. Clearly many, many people and local leaders have applied it as though it is a policy or doctrine. So 8 points for being in a publication made by the First Presidency (the chairman of the BYU Board of Trustees is the President of the Church, so I will go ahead and call the Honor Code that) but subtract three points for it being redacted. Of course, it isn’t fully redacted so we’ll split the difference and call it minus 1.5, for a score of 6.5 (or add one more point for it making sense, if you must). Much murkier as to whether we have a policy or doctrine here or something else.
There are other interesting angles here. The first is, if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? Or if something is a doctrine or policy but no one follows it, what difference does it make what it is? The church used to actively teach against contraception and certain sexual practices within marriage. As the membership came to be in open rebellion the Church simply stopped talking about it (-10). I have read dozens of reports from the trunk-or-treats people attended last night (Saturday) and there were plenty of masks and cross-dressing (mostly kids dressing up as opposite gender cartoon characters) and no one was turned away, acted offended or said anything about it. This makes me think that whether it is policy, doctrine or local practice it is probably non-issue for members and local leaders alike.
But another angle, and I have to think is the reason Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote the piece, is that this practice is potentially offensive to LGBTQ persons and probably very few people in the church have had it occur to them that this might be the case. Offensive is probably too strong a word though, isn’t it? Maybe the problem with it is that it reminds people where the church stands on LGBTQ issues in general. While it is hard to imagine there are too many LGBTQ persons who are affected by this policy, it is easy to imagine them reading about the policy and saying “oh sheesh, not these people again.” It just pokes at them and reinforces a negative perception, and needlessly because it doesn’t look like there is anything at stake for the Church on this issue. My suspicion is that most LDS folks would be genuinely surprised to know it bothers anyone and that in reality it doesn’t bother anyone all that much. Maybe the upshot of this is that in a faith whether things are never officially taken back, they will just stop talking about it (-10).
So there I was at the MTC, very dedicated and very serious about the business I was about. I was not a stupid person. I was not a thoughtless person. In fact I had thought a lot about why I was there, what my place in the Lord’s larger plan might be and the importance of the time in history I lived in. I believed what I had been told respecting the fact that I was from a chosen generation reserved for a very important time and for a very important cause. What life had not yet given me, however, was an experience that didn’t fit into all of that.
After I had been in the MTC for several days I was in a large meeting of all the missionaries where we were told that any unresolved sins would prevent us from feeling the spirit and from doing the work we were there to do. It was of critical importance that anything not resolved be taken care of at that time. That evening I left class and headed into a bathroom stall. I had begun to feel the strangest sickness and thought maybe I was going to throw up. I felt heat in my face coupled with an intense burst of energy in my mind that wanted to be released violently. I began to shake and felt like I wanted to tear the bathroom apart. In an effort to regain control I hit myself in the face so hard a trickle of blood came out of my nose. After a few minutes, it passed.
The only sense I could make of this was that the spirit was telling me that something was amiss in my life. But what? Then it came to me, I had masturbated before my mission. This was a problem I knew how to solve. The next morning I confessed to my Bishop, he told me not to worry and to get back to work. I felt better. For about two hours. Then the feeling began to return. For the next eight weeks that feeling would be my constant companion ever present, always increasing in intensity and punctuating itself with agonizing episodes every few hours.
I went back and confessed again. And again. And again. For things I had confessed long ago. For things I hadn’t even done. Before long confessing did not make me feel better and the anxiety I felt was intensifying. I slept less. I ate less. I began to wonder how I could live if this feeling never went away. All the while I studied day and night. Said all my prayers. Followed my schedule with exactness. I knew that if I did what I was supposed to that God would heal me. This was my test, the trial of my faith. I would lay in bed at night as the torturous feelings overwhelmed me, pleading for help. Pleading to know what to do. Eventually the tears would come and there would be a little sleep. But the moment I awoke it would return.
At some point my leaders had seen me confess enough and saw that their reassurances that I was okay were having no impact on me. They were right. What was happening was between me and the Lord and I would know I was forgiven when the torture stopped. I could not be told otherwise. They sent me to see a retired psychiatrist of some kind who assured me that what I was experiencing only happened to the best missionaries, that it was not spiritual in nature, but obsessive compulsive disorder. He contacted my parents who were very concerned about me and supportive of me. I was given a small dose of Prozac, which in 1994 had not been around all that long. I was told I would get better.
Now that I knew what was wrong I felt so good and so relieved. I just needed to hold on to let the medicine work. The good feeling lasted maybe two days. Then the near constant state of panic and anxiety returned. Why was the Lord not helping me? Why weren’t the priesthood blessings working? Was I not supposed to be there? By now I was within a week or two of when my district would leave for Argentina. I stopped sleeping. I stopped eating. I retreated into my own mind and began to fantasize about the release of death. I began to understand that I could not continue feeling as I did. I didn’t want to live the rest of my life with my minding literally pulling apart. The questions of what I had done to deserve it, why I could not get help, what it would mean for me not to complete a mission began to give way to questions like how will I survive, will I survive.
I lay on my bunk in the darkness with tears streaming down my face, completely alone. Help was not coming. The song “Homeward Bound” played in my mind and I knew the answer. I needed my parents. If anyone could help me, it was going to be them. The next morning I went to see the psychiatrist again and told him I was going home. He agreed that it was for the best. I called my folks and they wanted me home that minute.
I packed up all of my things. The two suits, the handkerchiefs, my Spanish scriptures, my white shirts and my Rockport shoes. I packed up my dreams of being a truly great missionary and of fulfilling the plan God had for me. I shuffled out to a bus in front of the MTC, fully defeated, and got on with a group of missionaries that was headed to the airport to board a plane for their mission. As I boarded the bus the Mission President came out and shook my hand. “Elder you have been honorably released but I hope to see you back here once you get your act together.” I had failed. But I wanted to live. And I wanted to die. But live, if possible.
As I flew to the east coast, the terror in my mind flew with me. It was there on the car ride home and there as I sat on the living room couch and tried to explain to my parents what was wrong with me. What I was experiencing. It is only now that I am a parent that I can appreciate how beside themselves with worry they were. The following day I was sitting in the office of a top psychiatrist in my area and then later in the office of a psychologist. I don’t remember all of the words of the doctor, but I will never forget when he said “Mr. Crowley, these are panic attacks you are experiencing. And we are going to stop them today.” And they were over, that day, with the proper medication. They have never come back.
For weeks that same medication also took almost any will I had. But it was so infinitely preferable to the terror that I barely noticed the passage of time. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but risking repeating that experience was out of the question. The questions of the social stigma of not completing a mission, how I would be received at BYU and whether any girl would want to date me would have to wait for another day.
What about God? What about my larger purpose? He didn’t seem to me at that time to be very interested in those topics, so I passed them off for another day as well. But I knew one thing very clearly. I had done what I was supposed to do with the very best intentions. I had given it my all. And I had begged for help from the depths of my soul and it had not come. That was not how things were supposed to work. And yet that is how things had happened. I was shattered. But at the same time, I understood a truth that had not occurred to me before: people sometimes suffer awful things and it isn’t their fault.
Five months later with the love and support of my family, who by contrast never failed, wavered or did anything but come through for me, I was ready to go back to school. Well, maybe not quite ready. Still on very shaky mental footing. I was still confused, still defeated, my confidence gone. And very faintly, I had begun to be angry.
Editorial Note: The condition I describe in this installment has now been described as scrupulosity. Excellent work is being done a Utah State University to better understand and treat this condition. To gain a better understanding of what it is and the work being done surrounding it, please listen to the Mormon Stories Podcast entitled “Understanding Scrupulosity Within the LDS Church.” I was lucky beyond words to parents who understood what was happening and acted decisively to, I believe, save my life. I love you Mom and Dad.
Recent comments by prominent Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress that Mitt Romney is a member of a cult (and not a true Christian like Rick Perry) at the Value Voters Summit generated a lot of controversy. It also prompted this piece in Slate Magazine which argues that bigotry against Mormonism is the prejudice of our age. That is, it is safe to be prejudiced against Mormons and most people don’t even recognize that they are, just as people from earlier times were slow to recognize their own racial bigotry.
I think that the article is right that what it describes as anti-Mormonism (which by the way has only a little in common with what most Mormons mean when they say that) is a safe prejudice to have (and that it ought not be so).
There are at least three different interesting angles here. The first is that it is the “liberal” media which is championing this cause. None of the clips you see on the news where some joker gets eviscerated in an interview for saying Mormons aren’t Christian or that the church is a cult have Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity or the like doing the heavy lifting. It is people like Anderson Cooper and Slate Magazine glaring down at their unconscious victim. Here is a video of Cooper turning Pastor Robert Jeffress into a pretzel.
The second is the tension between the Mormon cultural tendency to perceive persecution where it doesn’t exist (which comes from a past of authentic persecution and a cultural and theological overlay that says true believers should expect this) on the one hand and conservative politics on the other which tend to say that claims of racism, sexism and homophobia are overblown or exaggerated for political advantage. That people set themselves up as victims when they should rather seek to empower themselves. Two strong urges there with different sources competing for whether it feels right to a politically conservative Mormon to claim victim status.
The third is whether religious “bigotry” or “prejudice” belong in the same category as bigotry and prejudice against gender, race and sexual orientation (I include antisemitism under race). In other words, a religion is a set of ideas or ideals. I think most people, if they are honest, will admit that Scientology, for example, requires belief in such strange things that if they found out a person belonged to that faith they would draw at least some negative conclusions about them based on that. If a person were a Branch Davidian or a member of Heavens Gate, still more. Not because of religious bigotry, but because some ideas are so outlandish that they call a person’s judgment into question.
Sex, race and sexual orientation on the other hand are immutable characteristics of a person, not beliefs. It is intuitive to most of us now why you can’t judge a person based on these and why it is wrong to do so. But what about religion? Does slapping the label of “religion” on a set of ideas immunize them from being criticized like any other set of ideas such as political and philosophical ideas (both of which religion intersects with enormously)? If they do have a special status, why?
Last, the irony of a conservative evangelical leveling the charge of “culty-ness” at anyone else is delicious. The academic definition of cult* does have some overlap with almost every fundamentalist, restorationist or conservative Christian faith, and if it applies to anyone, it applies to the people leveling the charge. This does not make any of them cults, of course. But let’s be honest, when guys like Pastor Jeffress use the word “cult” it is not an academic definition they have in mind.
*Thanks to Jared Anderson for providing me this link.
Just a quick post to let people know that I am still here and still blogging. I have been distracted of late and just like the seven or eight unfinished books on my night stand I have about a half dozen half finished blogs in queue. I keep trying but it’s like I keep hitting a wall or really impenetrable hedge.
Hopefully one or two will get done this weekend. In no particular order, I am mostly done with blogs on the following:
Mormon Doctrine (not the book; the elusive concept)
Religion: Must it be rational to be good?
In the mean time, I have participated as a panelist on a podcast relating to temple recommend questions at Mormon Expression as part of their “for dummies” series. You may have a listen here, if you are so inclined.