So, apparently it’s rather difficult to offer a rationalization or defense of a racist practice without sounding like a daft racist. The reason for this is closely related to a more general rule (the bane of unselfconscious racists everywhere): when some idea or practice is racist, claiming it isn’t racist is racist. It just is. It’s one of the unbreakable laws of the universe. Calling something racist not racist is, like, one of the most racist moves you can do. Seriously.
There’s a reason why all of the theological or doctrinal rationalizations for the priesthood ban sound racist. They are. And they must necessarily be, because the policy/practice/doctrine they are defending was profoundly, irreducibly, and irredeemably racist. Whether you locate a group’s putative spiritual inferiority or immaturity or shared curse in their genetic makeup, their blood, or their preexistent choices, when you use race as a basis for inferring the spiritual deficiency and, further, if you enact, uphold, and defend an exclusionary policy (for example, a policy which denies the group access to essential saving ordinances), that is just racist. It doesn’t matter if you believe the rationalization in question reflects reality. All racists believe that their ideas about racial differences, superiority, and inferiority reflect reality. It’s still racist.
But here’s the real problem. If, after 1978, we refuse to acknowledge the wrongness of past racism, we are implicitly (or possibly even explicitly) upholding racism. It’s not just enough to acknowledge that the explanations were racist. The racism of the doctrinal rationalizations of the policy was only symptomatic of the fact that the policy itself was racist. Full stop. To construct for ourselves a narrative in which it was right to exclude persons with black African ancestry prior to the revelation, and then right to include them after the revelation only because of the revelation is to posit a universe in which such an exclusion on the basis of racial heritage is still, at least in theory, totally fine, but just doesn’t happen to be fine at the present moment (because currently, it doesn’t happen to be our policy). Even if we express gratitude that the practice changed, if we are unwilling to admit that it changed precisely because it was wrong, that it was an evil made good, an error corrected, a wrong righted, then our gratitude itself still subtly accepts and upholds a fundamentally racist view of the world. It says “it’s totally okay to withhold temple covenants and sealings on the basis of race, but thank goodness we aren’t doing that right now.”
So, yes, I’m saying that an unwillingness to call the former policy racist and, therefore, wrong, unjustified, harmful, un-Christian, and indefensibly regrettable is, however subtly, still fundamentally racist. The priesthood/temple ban is, at present, not just a symptom of a racist past. It is a thorn in the side, an unhealed open wound on the body of a still racist present. And the sooner we can collectively realize that our unwillingness to fully condemn the racism of our past preserves a deep nucleus of that past racism in our present, the sooner we can actually experience the full power of repentance.
I’ll return to the question of repentance in a moment, but I’d like to make a point that I think will provide some needed perspective for us as we face this problem together. I believe that part of the reason that we’re unable or unwilling to appropriately condemn our racist past is that for a (demographically and hierarchically) significant portion of Church membership, race is still a highly salient social and cultural category, in no small part because we believe it to be a biologically salient category.
What if the ban had applied not to persons with dark skin and demonstrable African genealogical heritage but instead to persons of a particular blood type? It’s not a ridiculous question, for at least a couple of reasons. First, at the time when the ban originated, “race” or racial type was very much understood to be basically isomorphic with blood type. In an era before the discovery of genes as the mechanisms for carrying and transmitting relatedness and trait similarity, blood was believed to be the vehicle and locus where racial differences and similarities were played out. Whites had white blood. Irish (then believed to be almost prototypically non-white) had Irish blood. Negroes had Negro blood. Germans had German (or Aryan) blood. Slavs had Slavic blood. (Blood, at least as a metaphor for heritage, is still somewhat integrated into our consciousness). Blood was an important analogical key to our understanding of race as a discrete biological category. Anxiety over “one drop” bespoke an conception of race not only as a self-contained, discrete category of persons but as something that could exist in pure (and, therefore, impure) form.
It was an understanding of human heritage and human relatedness born in a time when we didn’t know anything at all about genes, or chromosomes, or meiosis, or gametes, or population genetics, or the human genome, or trait transmission, or actual patterns of human variability. We conceived of races as closed circles, whose members all typified a racial ideal, and whose integrity was threatened by miscegenation. We believed that there was such a thing as a pure white person (in contrast to a pure Irish person or pure African person), and a pure (but potentially contaminable) white race. This is the understanding of human nature into which the priesthood ban was born, and all of our longstanding folk anthropologies and attempts to theologically rationalize it drew from its logic. The notion that racial heritage (i.e. demonstrably belonging to a particular well-defined, discrete racial group) was a reliable marker of some other discretely defined category (i.e. persons who were disloyal to God during the preexistence), depends upon the folklore of clearly defined racial categories, on the notion that this person is something called black African while these other people aren’t. Even if you can discretely divide preexistent humanity into two clear-cut categories (loyalists and fence-sitters, or somesuch), you simply cannot divide mortal humanity into two similarly discrete, mutually exclusive categories (persons with and without black African heritage). And, ironically, a ban based on blood type would at least have the virtue of applying itself to actual, mutually exclusive, discrete human-biological categories.
Population genetics only makes things worse, not just for the notion of self-contained, clear-cut, bounded racial categories, but for the notion that racial categories are reliable markers for ancient (biblical) heritage. I’ve written about this at some length on this blog before, but the long and short of it is that you only actually inherit genes from your ancestors going back about sixteen generations. Because people reproduce with people who live close to them, and because unrestrained global mobility isn’t exactly a given in human history, we do tend to be very genetically similar to our ancestors going even further back than that, but genetic similarity is not the same a genetic relatedness. And large, sprawling genealogical trees going back centuries and millennia overlap in such a way that being the actual genetic descendant of somebody who lived thousands of years ago is functionally meaningless. If a person who lived at the time that Cain is believed to have lived has any direct descendants living today, the entire population of the world are his direct descendants. If Cain lived ~6,000 years ago, there are only two options: either a) he has no surviving direct descendants or b) the entire human race (including Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Mark E. Peterson, Bruce R. McConkie, and Randy Bott) are his descendants.
The implications for the priesthood/temple ban should be obvious. Present day ethnoancestry, no matter how nuanced and grounded in proper understanding of genetics, epigenetics, and population genetics, is not and absolutely, inescapably cannot be a marker of descent from a “cursed” ancient lineage. Even if there once did exist the fabled cursed lineage of Cain or Ham, it either does not exist today, or else we all belong to it. There is no in between, not mathematically possible scenario in which people from one part of the world belong to the cursed race and people from another do not. Like so much else in this horrifying debacle, the cursed lineage is a fiction, a fantasy born long before science (and extremely non-controversial science at that) could demonstrate its fictitious character.
I know the priesthood/temple ban was wrong, not just because I know that it is ethically wrong and un-Christian, but because it was grounded in unreality. I know it was wrong because it is absurd. And I know it is absurd in the same way that I would know it is absurd to discriminate in salvific matters on the basis of blood type, of phrenological categories, of astrological sign, of having a red-headed paternal grandmother, or of tongue-rolling ability.
The question we should be asking ourselves is not why the ban was right until 1978, but rather why God permitted us to persist in doing something so obviously wrong until 1978. Part of the answer is that we insisted on it. We demanded it and refused to consider otherwise. We were defensive and obstinate and self-assured and prideful and utterly unwilling to consider that we were wrong, that what we were doing was wrong. Some of us were willing, but their very marginalization only marks them as exceptions that prove the general rule of our being very and prolongedly guilty of the above forms of unrepentance. Part of the answer, too, I think can be demonstrated by considering the likelihood that if we had lifted the ban, say, 50 years earlier, in 1978 black priesthood holders would have been presiding over all-black units and black temple workers officiating in all-black temples within a profoundly segregated church. We could have preserved all the racial prejudice and racist attitudes and still allowed that the inferior races could have their own priesthood. I’m not surprised at all that President McKay didn’t get the answer he wanted, because by all accounts the answer he wanted was that members of an inherently inferior race could now hold the priesthood. If a racist church president asked me if it was okay to give the blacks the priesthood, I think my answer would be deafening silence as well.
But because the ban persisted so embarrassingly long, well beyond the time when flagrant racism was considered at all socially acceptable, ending it had deeper consequences. All of the racist ideas that existed in Mormonism had been riveted to the ban, pressed into the service of justifying not just its existence but its necessity. Racist beliefs and doctrines became so intrinsically tied to racist practice that opening the heavens to end the practice also functioned as a repudiation of all the racist false doctrine. Scholars and sociologists like Armand Mauss have chronicled a massive intergenerational shift in racial attitudes within Mormonism around the 1978 revelation. I suspect that some false doctrines can become so entrenched within our consciousness and discourse and our inherently conservative leadership structure so unquestioningly committed to the false doctrines that the only thing God can do to purge the problem is permit us to pridefully and stubbornly use the false doctrines to rationalize and defend indefensible practices long enough that when God finally says “enough!” we really get the message.
God is no more responsible for forcibly eliminating the sins of a Church guided by revelation than He is for forcibly eliminating the sins of individual lives guided by revelation. All must repent. All must acknowledge our sins. We must grieve over the harm they have caused, in full awareness of the terrible evil of it all. The power of the atonement is not limited to individual lives. It is the power that makes it possible for God to work His great work through the imperfect, flawed, often prideful, and always sinful individuals that make up the body of Christ. If yesterday’s embarrassment and its horrible aftermath show us anything, it is that our lack of repentance as a people and as a Church is still a major obstacle to our achieving our full divine potential. The Kingdom’s growth and, by extension, the people of the world are paying a price for our unwillingness to publicly confess our sin, which we instead hide under a cloak of un-Christian folklore and false-doctrine and proud insistence that it wasn’t our fault, it was really God’s. When you have committed a great evil, and when you persisted in committing it for an extended period and at incalculable human cost, anything short of fully acknowledging it for what it truly is, and of anguished, broken-hearted contrition for having done it is not full repentance. And without full repentance, full redemption is not possible, but instead one must continue to suffer for one’s iniquities.