I’m a director in a couple of Mormon world-related not for profits. It’s a hard role; much harder than I expected it to be when I signed on for this service. You have to deal with different personalities, different perspectives, different agendas, all the while sublimating what might be your own preferences to the long term future good of the organization itself. The Quorum of the Twelve is in some sense analogous to a corporate board of directors, and the problems they face in governing a worldwide Church of over 14 million members must be absolutely staggering. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes and try to think through whether a disavowal of the ban is something we should advocate for the institution. I’ll start with some of my thoughts, but then I want you to put on your apostle’s cap and add to the discussion, trying to think from their perspective.
Historically the Church’s strategy for dealing with controversial issues like this has been to take the long view. The Church is steered like a huge ocean liner, and changes slowly, incrementally, not in sharp 90-degree turns, and in general that approach has served the Church well. But I think that as leaders now is a time when a more innovative approach to the problem is going to be necessary, because recent events have shown that strategy to be an utter failure. Here we sit 32 years after the 1978 revelation and we have one of BYU’s most popular religion professors indoctrinating thousands of our youth every year in the old explanations. This is a potential disaster for the organization. We thought the old stuff would die a quiet death, but it hasn’t. We now live in a different world, and since Al Gore invented the internet, our old strategy of waiting for time to heal the wound has been shown to be a failure. So now we’ve got to rethink things.
One problem we’re going to run into is that some of our peers on the Council almost certainly privately agree with Professor Bott. For me at least the cure to that thinking was to read the Bush, Mauss et al. line of scholarship that exposed the bankruptcy of our traditonal thought in this sphere, but if one hasn’t been exposed to those readings, and some of our colleagues surely have not, it’s a safe bet that the tradional thought continues in some quarters among our brethren. There’s probably not much we can do about that. Time will eventually help, but we don’t have that kind of time in my judgment.
FAIR is doing what it can to educate the Saints in this area. FAIR has included quite a number of black speakers at its annual conferences, and it sponsors a sister site, blacklds.org, where the seminal revisionist scholarship may all be found. (Armand’s wonderful Q&A take on the issue originated as a presentation at a FAIR Conference.)
Thinking about this from an apologetic perspective, it seems to me that there are two paths to take. We normally conflate defending church leaders with defending the Church itself. But this is a situation where those two things are not the same, and we have to make a choice which we’re going to protect. We can either defend the racist statements and practices of prior church leaders, or we can defend and protect the Church itself as an institution in 2012 and moving forward into the future. You can’t do both, you’ve got to choose. And I choose to seek to protect and defend the Church now, not the brethren then.
This is tough on our current leaders, because they knew and worked intimately with many of those brethren from a prior generation, and are loathe to throw them under the bus, as a disavowal of the ban might be perceived as doing. But our focus simply has to be on fostering the best interests of the Church NOW. And in my judgment, a disavowal would best serve those interests.
There is a timing issue here. The Church has long been loathe to be perceived to be acting in response to public pressure, and this is a hot, public issue right now. A disavowal would have gone down easier had it happened some years ago. Still, I personally am less concerned about perceptions of public pressure. There really isn’t much in the way of public pressure for a disavowal right now; the pressure, such as it is, is almost all internal at this point. But if Romney gets the nomination, then we’ll see this issue blow up in such a way that the last few days will seem like a harmless firecracker. As a guardian of the best interests of the institution, I would want to get ahead of this issue, and a disavowal puts it to bed.
A lot of people have expressed the view that a disavowal would destroy the Church, that there would be massive faith crises. Sure, this would happen on a small scale, like the 500 people who took out an ad in the SL Tribune to protest the 1978 revelation. But the Church is more resilient than that; a disavowal (I’m thinking an Elder Holland talk in GC) wouldn’t be much of a problem at all. My friend, a former bishop, is teaching a temple symoblism adult continuing education seminar in our stake, and he told me he hasn’t been pulling any punches with issues like masonic influence, and it has been no problem at all. If we’re straight with our people and talk to them in a context of faith, they can handle an awful lot. They certainly can handle this.
“We don’t know” was an interim strategy that worked well enough for its time. But the problem is, that mantra was meant to preserve the possibility that God ordered the ban from on high, and a lot of older Saints understand it in exactly that way. And as long as we try to leave that option on the menu, people are going to continue to fill in the doctrinal vacuum with the old, offensive ideas. Those ideas will not die under a “we don’t know” rubric; they will only die under a firm disavowal.
Black Africans don’t seem to fret much about the ban, but the same cannot be said for African Americans, for whom it is a huge issue. When I first moved into my ward, I was delighted that we had a critical mass of black Saints in the ward, maybe 20 or so attending on a regular basis. Now we have none. The Church has made a huge commitment to largely black areas such as Hyde Park, Detroit, Philly, the Bronx, Atlanta, etc. with pretty strong success, even with the millstone of the ban around its neck. Imagine if we took off that millstone and tossed it into the sea; our success and growth would soar in those communities. Most blacks would graciously forgive us, because they know that pretty much everyone was a racist back then. But when we incode a divine origin to the policy, well, if you were black would you join a Church that teaches that God viewed you as inferior in some spiritually meaningful way? No, nor would I.
For me, trying to think about this strategically as though I were a director (which in this case means an Apostle) of the Church as an organization, it seems like a slam dunk to disavow the ban. I think that action would be in the best organizational interests of the Church going forward.
OK, I’ve had my say. You’re in the next seat; how do you analyze the situation, and what would be your advice to your fellow Apostles as to how to proceed?