Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Racism, Politics and Mormons

It was reported today by CNN that former President Jimmy Carter has jumped on the racist denunciation bandwagon. Criticize President Obama, and somehow you're a racist these days. Wow, talk about being racially sensitive! Of course, there are racists out there, but come on -- to disagree with policy decisions is being racist? I don't think so. I'm always grateful, by the way, that President Carter got it right on the "Are Mormons Christian?" question. He denounced religious bigots who said they aren't.

But on the question before us today, President Carter is for the most part wrong. The most serious political charge that can be leveled at a politician -- and really, anyone -- in society today is the label racist. Carter and others who delight in playing the "race card" are usually doing it to promote their perceived political agenda as champions at all costs of the racial minorities. Seldom do the charges against political critics of black folks hold up, however.

Joe Wilson, the Congressman whose outburst"You lie!" hurled at President Obama in the joint session last week has also produced cries of racism among his foes, including Maureen Dowd, NY Times columnist. Her allegations were so outrageous they aren't even worth repeating, but they certainly boosted her readership for one day.

To disagree on a policy level, one should not be slapped with a racist label just because President Obama is a black man. The policy debate over reforming health care is a legitimate discussion, seldom laced with racial overtones in my following of the debate. What we have, boiled down to its essence, is a wide-ranging difference of opinions. Whether the differences in opinion can be successfully translated into racial bias is really a stretch of the imagination. I do not pretend in saying this that racism is dead in America -- far from it in isolated pockets of wrong-headed America. I know it exists not just in theory, but in practice. However, in the context of this latest debate over health care reform I have not detected it, even if President Carter asserts it.

Funniest quote I heard today was from a NY Congressman, Anthony Weiner (D): "Looking for bipartisan support for health care reform in Washington today is like watching little children running around in search of unicorns."

I'm also aware that Glenn Beck used reverse logic in asserting Obama was racist himself. Appropriately, Beck lost sponsors over it. I can separate bad policy from race, and it is my humble opinion that the vast majority of Americans who are vocalizing their annoyance with a single-payer proposal on the table can too. Bad policy is bad policy -- it's color blind.

For decades the Mormons were accused of racial bias in withholding priesthood ordinations from those of black ancestry. My sons and daughter who have served missions for the Church in recent years have encountered lingering questions about the Church's policy with regard to blacks. The revelation announcing priesthood ordinations for all worthy males in the Church was received in 1978. Despite that policy reversal, there are still charges of racial bias in the Church today. I have personally heard horrible racial epithets hurled unmercifully at blacks, even in the sacred precincts of the temples among aged white male members of the Church who are serving there. I suppose their boyhood traditions die hard. It's always a contradiction to hear those words coming from the mouths of the Lord's servants, but I digress.

In 2002, one of our sons was serving his mission in Brazil. He had a black native Brazilian companion, and they often discussed the blacks and the priesthood. It came up routinely in their proselyting efforts, and since then the question persists in more recent years.

Dear Joe:

You said Elder Geandro asked about the blacks and the priesthood. Your answer was a good one – that the Lord decided when it was time. With the 1978 announcement of the revelation, the “day of the Gentiles” closed, and the day when the gospel could be taken without restriction to all the nations of the earth commenced. Of course in Christ’s time the gospel was taught exclusively among the Jews, then later when Paul came along he received a revelation (later authorized by Peter, the head of the Church) that the gospel should be taken also to the Gentiles.

It’s interesting that this question would come up right now. I recently discussed it with the people who are producing the new docu-drama on Grandfather Lee’s life. I have been asked it many times before as well. The question is usually posed to me this way: “Do you think if President Lee had lived longer that he would have received the revelation on the blacks being able to hold the priesthood?” Of course, we’ll never know for sure, but I always answer that the keys of the kingdom reside in The Quorum of the Twelve. Those keys in their fullness lie dormant in each Apostle until he becomes the senior Apostle, at which time the others lay their hands on his head and confer all the keys upon one man – the senior member of the Quorum. So, one could argue that regardless of who the senior Apostle is at the time the progress of the Church would be the same regardless of the leader. That’s what I believe. President Lee, while not naturally inclined toward an empathetic position with regard to the blacks not holding the priesthood to the degree that President Kimball was because of his work among the Lamanites, President Lee was a pragmatic problem solver. I believe personally that he would have seen the need to expand the work among the blacks, and would have sought for direction much as President Kimball eventually did. The question was before The Quorum of the Twelve dating back to the administration of President McKay. I believe the Apostles collectively waited patiently on the Lord for the right time, and conversely, the Church and the blacks had some growing up to do too. So the revelation came precisely when the Lord decreed -- at the right time. If one does not accept living prophets and dynamic revelation, then no explanation will suffice.

There are no simple answers to this question about the blacks and the priesthood. But to fully understand it to the degree that anyone can understand it, you have to divide the history of black membership in the Church into two periods – the era from 1830 to June 1978, and the period since then.

HISTORY. Though few in number, blacks have been attracted to the Church since its organization. Early converts (such as Elijah Abel) joined during the 1830s; others (such as Jane Manning James) joined after the Saints moved to Illinois. Among those who came to Utah as pioneers were Green Flake, who drove Brigham Young's wagon into the Salt Lake Valley, and Samuel Chambers, who joined in Virginia as a slave and went west after being freed. Throughout the twentieth century, small numbers of blacks continued to join the Church, such as the Sargent family of Carolina County, Virginia, who joined in 1906; Len and Mary Hope, who joined in Alabama during the 1920s; Ruffin Bridgeforth, a railroad worker in Utah, converted in 1953; and Helvecio Martins, a black Brazilian businessman, baptized in 1972 (he became a General Authority in 1990). These members remained committed to their testimonies and Church activities even though during this period prior to 1978, black members could not hold the priesthood or participate in temple ordinances.

The reasons for these restrictions have not been revealed. I guess that’s the simplest answer. Church leaders and members have explained them in different ways over time, hence the confusion that has ensued. Was the practice of restricting blacks from the priesthood a commandment, or merely a policy? My answer to that question is that if there is no clear revelation in this dispensation that one can point to that specifically prohibits blacks from the holding the priesthood (and there isn’t such a revelation except as noted below) then it must be a policy. The priesthood is eternal – it is without beginning of days and end of years. That is the eternal doctrine that never changes – that God delegates his authority and power to men on the earth, and that God recognizes all things that are done in the name of the priesthood because of His priesthood authority delegated to men. Although several blacks were ordained to the priesthood in the 1830s, there is no evidence that Joseph Smith authorized new ordinations in the 1840s, and between 1847 and 1852, Church leaders maintained that blacks should be denied the priesthood because of their lineage. According to the book of Abraham (now part of The Pearl of Great Price), the descendants of Cain were to be denied the priesthood of God (see Abraham 1:23-26). Some Latter-day Saints, including Elder Bruce R. McConkie, theorized (and later admitted he was wrong) that blacks would be restricted throughout mortality. As early as 1852, however, Brigham Young said that the "time will come when they will have the privilege of all we have the privilege of and more" (Brigham Young Papers, Church Archives, Feb. 5, 1852), and increasingly in the 1960s, Presidents of the Church taught that denial of entry to the priesthood was a current commandment of God, but would not prevent blacks from eventually possessing all eternal blessings.

Missionaries avoided proselytizing blacks, and General Authorities decided not to send missionaries to Africa, much of the Caribbean, or other regions inhabited by large populations of blacks. Before World War II, only German-speaking missionaries were sent to Brazil, where they sought out German immigrants. When government war regulations curtailed proselytizing among Germans, missionary work was expanded to include Portuguese-speaking Brazilians. Determining genealogically who was to be granted and who denied the priesthood became increasingly a sensitive and complex issue.

President McKay's humanitarian impulse, even in controversial areas of Church policy, was demonstrated during a mission tour of South Africa in 1954. There he was reminded of the difficulties involved with the Church's policy of not allowing blacks or people with black ancestry to hold the priesthood. At that time, to be ordained, members in South Africa had to trace their ancestral lines beyond the continent of Africa because of the high possibility of black ancestry. President McKay listened with great empathy to those whose inability to trace their genealogy kept them from bearing the priesthood, and he felt inspired to modify the policy so that the genealogical test would not apply.

During the civil rights era in the United States, denial of the priesthood to blacks drew increasing criticism, culminating in athletic boycotts of Brigham Young University, threatened lawsuits, and public condemnation of the Church in the late 1960s. I remember that mob violence broke out one year at a basketball game in Laramie, Wyoming, causing the game to be suspended and the arena to be evacuated. Grandfather Lee was, of course, in the First Presidency in the late sixties, and had been the third most senior Apostle to whom all the other leaders looked for direction when President McKay and President Smith were so aged. He did the only thing he could do with growing responsibility and no authority -- he took a hard line backing and defending the Church’s position during those years, at the same time seeking the input of his Brethren among the Twelve. When questioned about the Church and blacks, Church officials following his lead stoically maintained that removal of the priesthood restriction would require revelation from God, and were not a matter of mere policy changes by men.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS. On June 9, 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball announced the revelation that all worthy males could hold the priesthood (see Doctrine and Covenants: Declaration 2). Ironically, Elder McConkie became the most vocal of the General Authorities as an advocate for the revelation, despite his earlier assertions. Following the 1978 priesthood revelation, proselytizing was expanded worldwide to include people of African descent. Between 1977 and 1987, Church membership grew from 3,969,000 to 6,440,000, an increase of 62 percent. Because LDS membership records do not identify race, it is impossible to measure accurately the growth of black membership, except in areas where people are largely or exclusively of African descent. In the Caribbean, excepting Puerto Rico, membership grew from 836 to 18,614 and in Brazil from 51,000 to 250,000 during that decade. Granting the priesthood to worthy males of all racial backgrounds is the primary reason that the work has flourished in Brazil in the post-1978 revelation era. Imagine having to do genealogical research to determine the percentage of “black blood” in each prospective convert! How many people would join the Church under those conditions? It’s hard enough just to get them married and to get them to give up cigarettes. Because of the practical nature of the problem, that is why I believe that eventually President Lee would have sought the same revelation that President Kimball did, though perhaps with different motivations. As I said, President Lee would have been more pragmatic, while President Kimball would have been more empathetic, but the result would have been the same.

In other areas of Latin America, such as Colombia and Venezuela, increasing numbers of blacks also joined the Church. In Europe, blacks, including African immigrants to Portugal, joined the Church. Moreover, in Ghana, Nigeria, and throughout west and central Africa, missionary work expanded at a phenomenal rate. Excluding South Africa, where the membership was predominantly white, membership grew from 136 in 1977 to 14,347 in 1988, almost all in West Africa.

Black Latter-day Saints are a non-homogeneous mix of various "kindreds, tongues, and peoples" emerging from thousands of years of unprecedented religious and cultural exclusions. As with LDS Afro-Americans, many black members outside the United States encounter contrasting circumstances of full ecclesiastical involvement, on the one hand, and general Church ignorance of their respective cultures, on the other hand. Local leaders and members (primarily white Latter-day Saints) often lack a good working knowledge of black members' needs, concerns, and circumstances. Despite the 1978 priesthood revelation and expanded missionary work among blacks, unexplored challenges to their growth and retention remain in counterpoint to their happiness with priesthood inclusion.

(Much of this material, except my own comments came from Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1-4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow [New York: Macmillan, 1992], p. 127).

Hope that helps. Love, DAD

CONCLUSION: In recent weeks, President Thomas S. Monson, along with Elder Dallin H. Oaks, were in the White House for a meeting with President Obama. It is safe to say that the meeting (while details were not disclosed) was at the very least a symbolic and significant event when they presented President Obama with his family tree based upon archival retrieval from the Church's vast genealogical library. Yes, there have been restrictions historically to holding the priesthood, but not since June 9, 1978. The full unity and fellowship of the members of the Church has always been the goal without regard to racial ethnicity, however, long before then: "If ye are not one, ye are not mine," saith the Lord. (D&C 38:27). That revelation was received in 1831!

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