Religion, Race And Double Standards

Posted on October 29, 2012 by


The arguments against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with respect to its 1849-1978 policy of restricting priesthood ordinations from its black members are not new.  We’ve discussed them before.  Thus, the arguments that Andrew Sullivan makes in his October 23rd article in The Daily Beast are nothing extraordinary.  However, Mr. Sullivan’s biggest mistake isn’t so much the details of the few facts that he presents, but rather the manner in which those facts are portrayed.  For example, he writes…

“I raise this because it is a fact that Mitt Romney belonged to a white supremacist church for 31 years of his life, went on a mission to convert Christians and Jews and others to this church, which retained white supremacy as a doctrine until 1978 – decades after Brown vs Board of Education, and a decade after the end of the anti-miscegenation laws.”

It’s disappointing to understand that Mr. Sullivan equates the Church’s past position regarding priesthood ordinations with “white supremacy”. Does Mr. Sullivan really mean to place the Church into the same category as the Klu Klux Klan, the Nazi party, and the Aryan Nations?  We would hope that he is merely being inflammatory, but his argument here seems to be that generally the people of the United States of America were “white supremacists” until 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education) or 1967 (the end of the anti-miscegenation laws) and that the Church’s pre-1978 position was perhaps excusable until then.  Certainly Mr. Sullivan implies that the Church should have at least changed its policies in accordance with the will of the nation – or at least in accordance with the will of its members (as bringing up the Romney’s civil-rights involvement suggests).

“Romney’s response to the white supremacism of his church was to point to his mother’s and father’s secular support for civil rights for African-Americans, which ties in with Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s abolitionist convictions.”

That Mr. Sullivan dismisses Romney’s response as evasive is quite indicative of the general error in the October 23rd article.  Similarly, that Mr. Sullivan labels Joseph Smith as an “abolitionist” is a good indicator of where the article’s argument falls flat.

Certainly Joseph Smith was against slavery.  That position was clear from his own ecclesiastical teachings as well as his political platform on which he ran for the US presidency.  Indeed, the Church’s own teachings were against slavery, and the vast majority of the membership of the early Church came from the anti-slavery north.  However, abolitionist views were to simply abolish slavery – as Abraham Lincoln did with the Emancipation Proclamation (which required the armed forces to treat the southern slaves as free) and as did the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution.  However, this was not Joseph’s position as Arnold Garr points out in the February 2000 Ensign.

In 1844 it certainly was possible for someone to be against slavery and yet not be an abolitionist.  From our vantage now this distinction may seem to be trivial; however, it is a very similar distinction that distinguishes the Church from being “white supremacist” prior to 1978.  Without recognizing this distinction it is impossible to make sense of the holy scriptures:

An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord for ever; (Deuteronomy 23:3)

Only the Lord had a delight in thy fathers to love them, and he chose their seed after them, even you above all people, as it is this day. (Deuteronomy 10:15)

When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee[…]; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.[…] For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth[…] because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers (Deuteronomy 7:1-8)

Without understanding the far-reaching mercy and atonement of Christ the statements made by these scriptures could seem bigoted, biased, and racist.  And lest we conclude that such examples of discrimination are limited to Deuteronomy or the Old Testament generally, review similar doctrines of discrimination and exclusion throughout the New Testament (Matthew 25:32-33, Luke 19:9-10, and Matthew 15:22-26, for example).

Of particular relevance to the familial limitations on ordinations to the priesthood is Numbers 18 where the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood is to be only bestowed fully upon the male descendants of Aaron and partially upon the male descendants of the tribe of Levi.  Should this ordination be viewed as a slight upon the other 11 tribes of Israel?  Of course not.  In fact, the wording in that chapter is of particular peculiarity in that it calls the ordination to the priesthood as “bearing the iniquity”.  Was it a privilege?  Certainly.  Was it also a burden?  Indeed.

So, it appears that sometime in the early days of the Church that scriptures such as Genesis 9:25-26 and Abraham 1:26-27 were understood to restrict priesthood from its worthy black, male members.  This understanding was followed – not out of hate or any belief of white supremacy or superiority (remember that these saints are anti-slavery), but in a desire to respect the word of God.  That said, even in the very quotes that Mr. Sullivan gives in his article Brigham Young is clear that the restriction is only “until” a future time; the restriction would not be permanent.

How, then, was that restriction fair for those worthy black, male members of the Church during 1849-1978?  The article’s quoted interview of Mitt Romney shows that Mr. Romney had a well-founded grasp of the true answer to this question:

“I had no question in my mind that African-Americans and blacks generally would have every right and every benefit in the hereafter that anyone else had.”

This is the crucial point that Mr. Sullivan appears to have misunderstood.  We believe that the atonement, mercy, and justice of Jesus Christ is universal.  Through His sacrifice all wrongs will be corrected and all injustices will be righted whether in this life or in the hereafter.  What Mr. Romney understood was that this life is but a moment in eternity and while here it is our privilege to serve the Lord in some capacity (1 Corinthians 12).  Our place in eternity is determined not by the level of privilege in this life, but in what we do with what we have been entrusted (Matthew 25:14-30).

If this were not true how could God be just in seeing one child born into a world of poverty and disease while another is born into privilege and prosperity?  How could God be just in permitting natural disasters to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent lives?  How could God righteously permit evil to hurt so many of His children?  Without this plan of mercy and restitution how else could God’s love be manifest?

Posted in: Priesthood, Race