On Racism and the Mormon Church and Response

August 22, 2012

Early this week, scholar John Turner presented an opinion piece in the New York Times on “Why Race Is Still a Problem for Mormons.” Turner, who has a new biography out on Brigham Young, says “The church could begin leaving those problems behind if its leaders explained that their predecessors had confused their own racist views with God’s will and that the priesthood ban resulted from human error and limitations rather than a divine curse. Given the church’s ecclesiology, this step would be difficult. Mormons have no reason to feel unusually ashamed of their church’s past racial restrictions, except maybe for their duration. Their church, like most other white American churches, was entangled in a deeply entrenched national sin. Still, acknowledging serious errors on the part of past prophets inevitably raises questions about the revelatory authority of contemporary leaders. Such concerns, however, are not insurmountable for religious movements. One can look to the Bible for countless examples of patriarchs and prophets who acknowledged grave errors and moral lapses but still retained the respect of their people. Likewise, the abiding love and veneration most Latter-day Saints have for their leaders would readily survive a fuller reckoning with their human frailties and flaws. The Mormon people need not believe they have perfect prophets, either past or present.”
Scholar Edward Blum, (who also has a forthcoming book due out soon titled The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America)  in a guest piece for The Juvenile Instructor blog, counters some of Turner’s points: “There are three points about this approach that trouble me. First, it flattens American religious history and the relationships between race and religion. Second, it sounds strange when put in comparison. And third, it neglects the crucial importance of theology (and theological particularity) within Mormonism. (I want to stop here and say that I recognize Turner’s essay was an op-ed and can only be so nuanced; I also want to reiterate that I am a fan of his work and am making these points to broaden discussions, not to attack his scholarship in any way)….Since Mormonism taught so many new customs, mores, texts, and ideas (many of which are beautiful and full of the respect for abundant life), why was anti-black white supremacy so vital? (and, of course, their positions on people of African descent different dramatically from other people groups) Instead of avoiding the question, we should look into the particularities. One particularity brings sheds light on an important distinction of Mormon theology: its emphasis on corporeality and the anthropomorphized sacred. Unlike many nineteenth-century Protestants who wanted to avoid from the body (in spiritualism, for instance), Mormonism moved the body to center stage. God has a body. Jesus had and has a body. Early Mormon doctrine dissolved the supposed separation between body and soul that many Christians had tried to make. And when they linked physical bodies to spiritual essences, they participated in the long and tangled history that Paul Harvey and I detail in The Color of Christ, which is basically a book about how race and religion get woven together in America from 1500 to the present.”
Click in to read both thought-provoking pieces.