The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly referred to as the LDS Church or Mormon Church, recently issued a statement entitled “Race and the Priesthood” that discusses and disavows the Church’s previous policy banning black people of African descent (yes, it really was that specific) from holding the priesthood and participating in certain temple ordinances. The ban was lifted in 1978, purportedly because of a new “revelation” on the matter, but this is the first time the Church has issued such a strong and detailed disavowal of that former practice and the racist beliefs that surrounded it. (Incidentally, black women are still banned from holding the priesthood. Of course, this is because all women are banned from holding the priesthood. Naturally, some Mormon women have been pushing for a new “revelation” in this area as well for quite some time, but with little to no success so far.) I find the Church’s statement both accurate and admirable in many respects, and I do not wish to belabor this tired topic, but I do take issue with some of the statement’s claims, particularly this one:
“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse […].”
Oh? Truly? That is a radical statement indeed, for if it is to be believed then the LDS Church must now disavow several passages from what is arguably its most important scriptural text: the Book of Mormon. For example:
“And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them” (2 Nephi 5:21; emphasis mine).
“And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren” (Alma 3:6; emphasis mine).
Gee, I wonder where a devout Mormon might get the idea that “black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse”? Of course, the Book of Mormon also holds out hope of recovery:
And thus we see that, just as saying “I’m not a racist” doesn’t make it so (indeed, this phrase often coincides with the reverse), a religious institution stating “Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form” doesn’t make it so.
Sadly, it’s an inescapable fact that racism—not of the ugliest sort, perhaps, but a form of racism nonetheless—is integral to the storyline of the Book of Mormon. The Bible has its share of racism and other forms of unjustified prejudice, too. As such, condemnation of “all racism, past and present, in any form” requires condemnation of significant portions of the Bible and the Book of Mormon along with countless other books, many of which are otherwise praiseworthy. This isn’t a problem, unless of course you are committed to reverencing some of those books or the people who produced them.
This is why the reverencing of human beings or their words or works is a terribly dangerous business: it often forces you into the uncomfortable position of defending or desperately explaining away ideas or acts that are no longer defensible, if indeed they ever were, in order to maintain reverence for Moses, or Muhammad, or Jesus, or Joseph Smith, or Brigham Young, or whoever else is in question, as someone who was supposedly sometimes a conduit for the infallible word or will of a supreme deity or some other mystical source of knowledge. All human beings are worthy of respect, and some deserve an especially high level of respect as a consequence of extraordinary skill or contribution to society, but none deserve to be reverenced in that manner, and the same goes for anything said, done, or created by a human being. And let’s not kid ourselves: all religious concepts, doctrines, ordinances, practices, texts, buildings, and so forth are created by human beings, not by celestial beings or mystical forces. (If you believe you have convincing evidence to the contrary, the world awaits your profound discovery.) Thus, it shouldn’t surprise us when any religion exhibits or endorses racism, sexism, sexual phobias, and other potential foibles of human psychology. Religions are products of cultural evolution and thus bear, as Darwin once put it in reference to humans as products of biological evolution, “the indelible stamp of [their] lowly origin” (The Descent of Man, ch. 21).
In closing, I invite my readers—especially those of the LDS persuasion—to consider this crucial question: in a church that relies on the claim that its leaders have special access to divine revelation (often including claims of face-to-face dialogue with the likes of, say, Jesus…whose resurrected body is typically described as being remarkably white, by the way), how many times can current leaders say former leaders were wrong on matters of great importance before the claim of special access to divine revelation loses all credibility and starts to seem as meaningless and silly as a man sticking his face into a hat?