We’re moving on to a critique of the Race and Priesthood essay on the LDS Church website. What are the strengths and weaknesses? Is it a definitive repudiation of racism? Dr. Matt Harris & Dr. Newell Bringhurst will weigh in.
Matt: I want to start with the positive, first, I suppose. The first one is that the Race and Priesthood essay gives Latter-day Saints an authoritative document to wave in the air and say to the brother at Church, “Look, the Church no longer teaches that black people are cursed, or that they were less valiant in the pre-existence.” Before, when some Latter-day Saints would do that, they would get push back, “Who says that? Where?” They just didn’t have anything to appeal to, really. But now you’ve got an official document where somebody can wave in the air at church or anywhere else and say, “Look, this is not what the Church teaches. It once taught this, but it no longer teaches it. So please don’t say that, brother or sister”. So I think that’s really important to know.
Matt: The second thing is that the Race and Priesthood essay talks about it being a temple and priesthood ban. That’s not a small distinction, that it used to be just really a priesthood restriction. But really, it always impacted black Latter-day Saints in their ability to go to the temple. They could always do some rituals in the temple, like baptisms for the dead, for example, but they were clearly forbidden from being sealed in the temple as husband and wife, and also receiving their endowment. So, it is a temple and priesthood restriction. The essay makes that clear. I think that’s really, really an important point to make. The essay also denounces the idea of interracial marriage as a sin. Since I’m into the second book now in Blacks and Mormons, it’s just extraordinary to me how much of the fear of interracial marriage governed the brethren towards their views on civil rights, or whether to have black people, black students come to BYU. Interracial marriage, it was at the bedrock of all of this. Certainly, I don’t want to give the impression that Latter-day Saints and BYU policies were unique, because that’s just not true. Lots of Americans in the 20th century did not favor interracial marriage, and the church was one of them.
GT: Can I pause there, just for a second, Matt? There was an essay by a black member of the church, [Andrew S at] Wheat & Tares , a few years ago. One of the things that he said about the Race and Priesthood Essay was that it’s kind of a Rorschach test. You can read that God was not responsible for the ban, and that it was a man-made thing, or you can also read that it was God commanded. It kind of depends on your purpose. The essay was purposely written vaguely so that it wouldn’t offend either the liberal or the conservative members of the Church. Can you comment on that? Do you agree with that?
Matt: Absolutely. That’s absolutely true. I talked to a couple of people. There are a number of people that participated in this essay. I mean, certainly, you mentioned that Paul Reeve wrote a lengthy draft, and he did. But there were a number of people who weighed in. It was sort of like the Declaration of Independence. We give credit to Thomas Jefferson. But the truth is, if you look at the first draft that Jefferson writes, it gets pretty watered down by the third and fourth draft when the Congress sinks their teeth into it.
Matt: When the document came out, I shared with my brother who was in a bishopric at the time, and I said, “What does this mean to you?” He didn’t read the same things that I read into it. So, your point is well taken. Then I walked through it with him. I said, “Now, what do you make of that paragraph? Read it carefully.” Now, my brother has a doctorate degree, [and] two Masters. He’s a smart guy, and he didn’t read it [the way that I did] on the first attempt. So, I walked him through a paragraph where it talks about the cultural conditions in the 19th century, and his response was, “Okay, I guess I can see your point now”. Obviously, I was influenced by my conversations with a couple of scholars that worked on this. But it wasn’t as clear in its writing as we would like, but that was by design, I think.
GT: That you would like, but the Church leaders were fine with it, right?
Matt: Here’s what I think. I think too often we paint broad brushes with the Church leaders. We say they’re all this or they’re all [that]. That’s just not true. I mean, these guys have different opinions, they have different thoughts and different ideas. That’s not revolutionary on my part. I know that brethren have admitted this over the time. But there are plenty of instances where they disagree.
Check out our conversation….
Don’t misss our other conversations with Matt & Newell.
If you’re interested in Matt and Newell’s book, here is a link on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3mqQJjS