I once had a co-worker who was an alcoholic, although he claimed to be just a social drinker. It was only after two disastrous life events that he decided to face the truth, admit that he had a problem, and get help. As I worked in the office next to his for over a year, I often reflected on the the lesson I learned in Primary about the four R’s of repentance. The first step we need to take in order to reform ourselves and become better is to recognize that we have a problem. The second step is to feel sincere remorse for our actions.
In the LDS church, we need to find a way to explain our past and present racial attitudes. After recent screenings of Nobody Knows, I’ve had conversations with faithful and active LDS members who have advanced three different explanations for our actions leading up to June 8, 1978. This post will address those explanations and explain why I continue to find them inadequate.
Church leaders at the time were simply part of their surrounding culture.
This is a reason which explains but doesn’t excuse. When we make this argument we are making a general observation which we also want to use as a means of exoneration. I think it goes without saying that the society which surrounded the American church and its leaders over the past 150 years was racist, and it should not surprise us to see some of that influence seeping into the church, even at the highest levels. But the argument ultimately fails because being LDS means that we should separate ourselves from the evil around us and reject that part of the worldly culture which conflicts with the gospel culture. We simply cannot use culture as an excuse. For example, consider a hypothetical serial adulterer who takes his cues from popular entertainment. When he is finally asked to explain his behavior to his bishop, do you think he will get a sympathetic hearing if he claims that his sinful actions were the result of society’s influence and that he should therefore be excused? If you were his bishop, what would you do when he asked why people are making such a big deal of something that is in the past, and can’t we all just put it behind us and move on?
The ban was necessary in order to prevent schism in the church.
This sounds like a reasonable argument. We need to be unified, consequently we must sometimes be willing to compromise in order to get along. It would not have done the church any good to break up over this issue, and many people might have left the church. But then we need to remember that many people did leave the church. As Tamu Smith points out in Nobody Knows, the cost to black families has been incredibly high, and tragic. We lost the descendants of Jane James and Elijah Able and other faithful saints. Do we really want to be known as people who shift the burden for our racism onto others who are innocent? If we sincerely believe this argument, we are not taking responsibility for our sins. If this argument is true, we have reinforced our worst tendencies at the expense of our better selves. If black people had been fully integrated into Mormonism from the beginning, I believe the church today would be less xenophobic, less racist, and more accepting of differences of all kinds. Win/win/win.
The gospel welcomes black people, but their culture hinders their progress in the church.
I have little patience with this line of thinking, but because this attitude is widespread among us it must be dealt with. It plays into the hands of culture warriors and people often agree with it without even defining what black culture is. When we start to get down to details, though, things get ugly fast. When I asked follow-up questions, I found that the people who make this argument mean that black culture doesn’t fit in with the hard-working beehive model of Deseret. That is an insulting idea, and one that should not be made by a person who lives in a ward which struggles to get into double digits on hometeaching percentage. I have also heard objections to the energetic style of worship in black churches, and emphatic insistence that we must maintain our sense of reverence as we currently practice it.
As I think about these three reasons, I don’t know quite what to make of our current situation. On one hand, we still hear plenty of excuses, and that makes me wonder if we are like my drunk co-worker. Have we really even figured out that we have a problem? Do we even notice the damage we have caused, or care about it? Are we still, even now, trying to blame our behavior on others and make excuses? In the special features portion of Nobody Knows, we can hear Tamu Smith explain how she was asked to bring her family and be photographed for church magazines. When the family arrived, her white husband was excluded from the pictures and she was paired with a black man who was a complete stranger. Even now, decades after the ban was lifted, the Smith’s married-in-the-temple family apparently isn’t quite good enough for us. If this incident reveals the underlying attitude of the white American church now, shame on us. We might as well start right now making installment payments on that hovel in the telestial kingdom, because that is certainly where we are headed.
On the other hand, I am very optimistic. It is possible to envision a time in another few decades where we truly will not notice race. I love it when a woman who is the great-great-great granddaughter of slaves stands to bear her testimony in our ward. Instead of addressing the congregation as brothers and sisters, she says simply: “Good morning, family.”