Armand Mauss has graciously agreed to post his thoughts on the study of race and the church. Mauss continues to be one of the leading scholars on the race issue over the past four decades and much of what’s been discussed this week can be found in Mauss’s scholarship, notably All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (U of Illinois Press, 2003).
The only new developments with regard to the race issue, it seems to me, are the recurrent discoveries of that historical issue for the first time by incredulous new members (black or white) and/or by Mormon youth who have grown up without knowing that the Church ever had any racial restrictions. It seems that each generation (or convert) in the Church has to discover anew that skeleton in our historical closet. Having lived with the issue for more than 50 years, I find myself somewhat surprised whenever I encounter the wide-eyed “How-could-this-ever-have-happened?!” demands by younger church members — or at least by the better educated ones. There has long been a substantial and readily accessible scholarly literature on the topic, and a little study of that literature (plus a little ordinary American history) will cover most of the questions people have about when, how, and why we got burdened with the “race issue” until 1978.
The relatively brief Mormon variant of all this racist nonsense, however (only 130 years), was not a sudden invention. It was mostly imported from a long racist tradition found in much earlier religions. If you want to explore that tradition and its religious roots, here are four recent books that you might wish to consult (some of which were called to my attention, I must acknowledge, by Stirling Adams) : (1) Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification for American Slavery (Oxford U. Press, 2002); (2) David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton U. Press, 2003); (3) Benjamin Braude, Sex, Slavery, and Racism: The Secret History of Noah and His Sons (Knopf, 2005); and (4) Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 (Cambridge U. Press, 2006). Against the historical background laid bare in these books, it is not difficult to understand why our Mormon forebears found their myths about black people to be so natural.
My current interest in the race issue focuses both on the past and on the future. As for the past, I find myself frustrated and appalled at the perpetuation of racist thinking at the LDS grassroots (at least in the U. S.). There are at least two forms of this hang-over from the past:
(1) Even though the traditional priesthood restriction has been gone for three decades, many well-meaning Saints (including leaders and seminary teachers) are still using the old racist folklore (marks, curses, failures in the pre-existence, etc.) to “explain” to the youth why the church formerly had that restriction! These “explanations” will probably persist to some extent until there is a formal repudiation of all such folklore from the First Presidency itself. President Hinckley ventured close to such a repudiation in his remarks during the Priesthood Session of the April 2006 General Conference, but he basically believes that a repudiation is already implicit in the 1978 policy change, so I don’t expect a further repudiation very soon. I wish the rest of the Church shared Pres. Hinckley’s assumption about an implicit repudiation, but many don’t.
(2) A second and more subtle form of racism underlies the continuing books and sermons that periodically appear on the “special lineage” of the House of Israel (usually with reference to a special category of spirits set aside in the pre-existence to come into mortality through that lineage). This idea too is a survival of 19th-century LDS thinking that has its roots in the same heritage that ascribes a divine rank-ordering to the various races (with the “special” Israelites at the top and the “descendants of Cain” at the bottom). Operationally, LDS doctrine and practice have moved beyond all such traditional distinctions to recognize, at last, with the Apostle Paul, that distinctions of lineage and all other kinds are done away through acceptance of the Gospel of Christ. This is the theme of my own 2003 book, which is apparently not widely read, judging from the persistence of both (1) and (2) that I have described above!
Finally, while I am not doing any systematic research right now on the future of race relations in the Church, I am keeping track of the many ways in which the Church has been reaching out to black people as though to “make up for” the errors of the past. Besides all that has been happening to convert 200,000 Africans, I see a renewed effort to win the hearts and minds of African Americans — so far with limited success, but with good prospects for the future, I believe. I could elaborate a lot more on this point, but my post is already too long.