Mormons praised — and criticized — this week for race relations

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Jermaine Sullivan and his wife, Kembe, both featured in the movie "Meet the Mormons," conduct a media event in Los Angeles to announce the Freedmen's Bureau Project, on June 19, 2015. Photo courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

(Photo courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

Jermaine Sullivan and his wife, Kembe, both featured in the movie "Meet the Mormons," conduct a media event in Los Angeles to announce the Freedmen's Bureau Project, on June 19, 2015. Photo courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Jermaine Sullivan and his wife, Kembe, both featured in the movie "Meet the Mormons," conduct a media event in Los Angeles to announce the Freedmen's Bureau Project, on June 19, 2015. Photo courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Jermaine Sullivan and his wife, Kembe, both featured in the movie “Meet the Mormons,” conduct a media event in Los Angeles to announce the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, on June 19, 2015. Photo courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Last Friday, on the 150th anniversary of “Juneteenth,” the LDS Church unveiled its ambitious plan to index more than four million genealogical records of former slaves.

It’s an amazing undertaking. (Click here to find out more about the project overall and here if you’d like to volunteer to be part of it. You can log on from anywhere.) Once the records have been indexed, African Americans who are researching their family history will be able to access crucial information that was virtually unobtainable before.

So, the good news is that the Church is funding this effort and providing the human hours to see it through. And there’s internal progress afoot too: African American Mormon leaders were in attendance at Friday’s press conference, including LDS Stake President Jermaine Sullivan and his wife Kembe.

But this last week has also seen criticism of the way the LDS Church has addressed – or, more accurately, not addressed – race relations.

At the Huffington Post, for example, political science professor Benjamin Knoll took a dim view of the Deseret News’s recent editorial about the Charleston shootings, which downplayed the racial motivation for the murders in favor of blaming “a rising secularism that would limit religious expression.” In his brief article “No, the Charleston shooting was not an attack on ‘religious freedom,’ Knoll wrote:

As was so completely and obviously apparent from the beginning and has been made even more clear in the aftermath, Dylann Roof did not commit this act of murder out of a secular hatred for religious freedoms or religious Americans. He did this because he hates black people.

As much as some conservative Christians feel that their religious liberties are being threatened by secular society these days, their struggles pale in comparison to the systematic prejudice and discrimination still regularly experienced by racial minorities in the United States on a daily basis. To try to twist this story into a “religious liberty is under attack” narrative is not only completely tone deaf and self-serving, but shows an extreme lack of sensitivity and respect to the families of the shooting victims.

I’m sure that the authors of the Deseret News editorial (which, in its defense, also mentioned the “irrational scourge of racial hatred”) feel deep sympathy for the victims of the Charleston shooting. But Knoll is basically right: even well-intentioned words, ones that seek to create a sense of camaraderie between Mormons as a religious minority and African Americans as a racial minority, utterly miss the point.

White Mormons, who are still by far the majority of Latter-day Saints in the United States despite the Church’s growing diversity abroad, live in a bubble of racial privilege.

It’s white privilege that enabled the Church to take no notice of the June 8 anniversary of the 1978 announcement that allowed blacks to enter the temple and be ordained to the priesthood. As Julienna Viegas-Haws noted in a wounded Salt Lake Tribune editorial on Saturday, Mormons devote all kinds of attention to our July 24 Pioneer Day and almost none to the landmark reversal of the policy that once prevented her and her family from the full blessings of Church membership.

It’s white privilege to bury the Church’s excellent “Gospel Topics” essay on race – one that carefully positions the policy as arising in “a highly contentious racial culture in which whites were afforded great privilege” – deep in the bowels of the Church’s website rather than requiring that it be read aloud from the pulpit and taught in Sunday School.

Until that happens, many white Mormons will persist in perpetuating theological untruths about the all-too-human reasons for the ban. I’ve had commenters right here on this blog insist that the priesthood ban was of the Lord, and not the result of LDS leaders being culturally conditioned by the racism of their times. The Church has already released a statement that clarifies this matter significantly . . . but not nearly enough people know about it. (Some great news posted yesterday about the new curriculum for youth suggests that this neglect may be changing, and that the GT essays will be incorporated more fully into LDS lessons.)

And white privilege was on full display in many U.S. wards on Sunday as they ignored last week’s Charleston shooting. It’s been interesting to see the informal polls and discussions online about whether local leaders addressed the murders, took the opportunity to denounce racism, or even prayed for the victims and their families.

Some did. Most apparently did not.

So, I’m glad the Church is working on the Freedmen’s records — and that, at the announcement, Elder Christofferson did take a moment to publicly condemn the Charleston hate crime. It was an excellent example.

There has been much progress. But there is still a very, very long way to go.

  • Old Guy

    One thing that I would consider to be walking the talk is changing the color scheme in the LDS church’s leadership:

    https://www.lds.org/church/leaders?lang=eng

    “It’s white privilege to bury the Church’s excellent “Gospel Topics” essay on race … deep in the bowels of the Church’s website rather than requiring that it be read aloud from the pulpit and taught in Sunday School.”

    Brian Dawson was dismissed for teaching this essay in his Sunday school class.

    http://www.sltrib.com/lifestyle/faith/2475803-155/mormon-bishop-dismisses-teacher-for-using

  • Anon

    Wasn’t that (Brian Dawson’s dismissal) an amazing and ridiculous turn of events. And the hits just keep on coming!!

  • Geoff – Aus

    Jana, You say in your article that the church has issued a statement that clarifies whether racism was of God or not. Last time I spoke to a member of my Stake Presidency he was convinced it was of God.

    Can you give me a reference?

  • DanD

    People are working hard on both sides to start a racial war in the US. . . . and with the apathy towards unifying, it may just work. . .

  • Pingback: The Cultural Hall (A Mormon Show in podcast form) – Mormon News Report, 25-June-2015()

  • Robert Slaven

    I was appalled by the DN editorial. By only touching as little as possible on the racist nature of the attack, and trying to hijack the incident into an issue of “religious freedom”, the Deseret News put itself in the same camp as all the Republican politicians and right-wing media personalities who have spent all week DESPERATELY trying to turn the conversation about the Charleston massacre away from its true admitted-by-its-perpetrator racist motives, and towards Any Other Possible Cause, from “attacking religious freedom” to mental illness to drugs to any of a dozen also possible, yet incorrect, motives. It’s disgusting. I can’t help but think that if the DN editorial board is so desperate to avoid placing the blame where it belongs — on the horrible racism that still permeates America and Americans — then there must be a lot of other American Mormons who are similarly desperate. But if America continues to refuse to talk about racism, racism will never go away.

  • Robert Slaven

    DanD, if you think “People are working hard on both sides to start a racial war”, then I’m afraid I must conclude that you’re either paranoid or misinformed or both. If there is a “racial war” in America, it’s white Americans waging war against black Americans for centuries, but no one calling it “racial war” until black Americans stand up and push back. Much as how with “class warfare”, The Owners have been waging war against working Americans for centuries, but no one calls it “class warfare” until working Americans stand up and push back.

    Until America in general, and white Americans in particular, admit the obvious truth that racism has been a horrible blight on the nation since before its founding, and that racism CONTINUES to be a horrible blight on the nation, there will be no progress. White America has to “man up”, apologize, beg forgiveness, and start treating black Americans like their neighbours (in the sense of “Love thy…”), to have any hope of…

  • Jana, I’m with Geoff. What is this statement you speak of? My family read the essay and are STILL convinced the ban is from God. Confirmation bias at its finest.

  • Cat Jac

    It was from Brigham Young, an one day the Church will admit it.

  • Old Guy

    From the linked essay: “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else.”

  • Old Guy

    See below,

  • Maddy

    The Deseret News editorial was ridiculous and another thing that bothers me is the LDS Church’s ownership of DN gives the editorial the veneer of acceptability by LDS leadership. The Deseret News is seen by many members as the LDS Church newspaper such that it can serve as a powerful political tool while church leadership claims political neutrality.

  • Fred M

    The essay is carefully worded so that those who really want to believe the ban came from God can read it and still perform the mental gymnastics necessary to hold onto that belief. But a careful reading reveals more. “The Church was established in 1830, during an era of great racial division in the United States. At the time, many people of African descent lived in slavery, and racial distinctions and prejudice were not just common but customary among white Americans. Those realities, though unfamiliar and disturbing today, influenced all aspects of people’s lives, including their religion.” Why include info about racial attitudes in America if the ban came from God? And this: “In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood…” No mention of revelation or God or even inspiration. It was just an announcement. Sometimes what is not said is as important as what is.

  • Your problem is you always see skin color in everything. I am a none white and a member of The Church Of JESUS CHRIST Of Latter Day Saints. I go to church and see my brothers and sisters and not see their skin color. You see something to criticize in something so positive. You are a very sad person.

  • SanAntonioRob

    Are too many Americans racist? Yes. Do even more harbor ideas that aren’t blatantly racist, but still divide America? Yes.

    Does “White America”, “Black America”, or any other “[Color] America” as a group have something to apologize for to “[Other Color] America” as a group? No!

    None of us “White America” were alive during slavery. Most of us weren’t alive even during segregation. Is there residual “White privilege”? Yes. Does it need to be eradicated? Yes. Do I need to apologize for it? Why would I? I didn’t cause it.

    I have black neighbors. My kids play with their kids. I talk with them in the yard. Exact same as with my white neighbors. We have gone on vacation with black friends. My guess is I am a typical white person.

    Progress can’t be made by burying our heads in the sand about racism. But neither can progress be made when we self-segregate into sides and look at other side to do all the changing. I think that was DanD’s point.

  • HarryStamper

    In your article you say…..”I’ve had commenters right here on this blog insist that the priesthood ban was of the Lord, and not the result of LDS leaders being culturally conditioned by the racism of their times.”
    Probably, because all the prophets since BY said so. President Kimball most notably also said it was a “restriction imposed by the Lord.”……You may remember President Kimball received the revelation to remove the restriction.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    So a Mormon who serves a two year mission in Dominican Republic, or Kenya, or Japan, or Mongolia, or India, or Tonga, or Brazil, or Mexico, is living in a protected “bubble of white privilege”? The Church also sends missionaries from Kenya and Mongolia to places like Idaho Falls, Idaho. You should drop by the campus of BYU, BYU Idaho, and especially BYU Hawaii and tell that to the students there. They need a good laugh.

    My Dad was a mailman. My Mom is Japanese. They raised me as a Mormon, and it included participating in all sorts of events with the Japanese Mormons who have their own congregation in the Salt Lake area with Japanese language Sunday School and talks given in Japanese. They supported me on my mission in Japan, where I served alongside missionaries from Hawaii whose ancestry is Hawaiian, Tongan, Chinese and Japanese.

    I am 65 years old and have lived in MD, VA, NE, CO, CA, ID, UT, MS, and WA. Mormons are not insulated from racial diversity, but increase…