Why The Church Hasn’t Condemned Its Racist Past

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.

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