In the short time since the “Race and the Priesthood” section of Gospel Topics was added to lds.org, I have seen various reactions. Some people have asked if church leaders were wrong about the priesthood and temple restriction, then could they possibly be wrong about something significant today? Similarly, I have seen the syllogism rephrased for rhetorical effect: The ban was not wrong. If it were then church leaders could similarly be wrong about something today like [invoke pet topic here].
The disavowal of racist teachings in the statement used the word “theories” to describe ideas advanced by church leaders and others in explaining the restriction. Without an unequivocally disavowal of the actual restriction, some people have argued that while any reason for the ban is to be considered mistaken, the actual restriction was nevertheless the will of the Lord. For years church leaders have made statements like Elder Holland’s comment in his PBS interview “We simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.” The introduction to Official Declaration 2 in the 2013 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants states that “Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.” Some have argued that claiming the restriction was a mistake is tantamount to claiming to know “why that practice…was in place.”
First I want sidestep any discussion of the difference of policy and doctrine. As far as I am concerned “doctrine” is category that is analytically useless. We are going to focus instead on teachings, beliefs and policy. I think what the OD2 intro and Elder Holland were saying was that there is no evidence in church records for any sort of revelatory impetus for the restriction. Again, some will say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence [sigh].
I am reasonably familiar with parts of the records of the Church, and have seen a great many primary documents relating to church leader teachings about the restriction. I submit that while some people may not know why or how the temple and priesthood restriction was instituted, church and other records document what Brigham Young and subsequent church leaders believed and taught about the policy. Brigham Young initiated the restriction and clearly taught why he initiated it (see here, for example). Subsequent church leaders taught similar or divergent beliefs over time. Look forward to Paul Reeve’s book next year.
With the understanding that the beliefs and teachings of Brigham Young and subsequent church leaders on this matter were wrong, we have a couple of possible ways to think about the issue:
1. Brigham Young and subsequent church leaders were wrong about the restriction and the restriction was a mistake.
2. While Brigham Young and subsequent church leaders were wrong about everything related to the restriction, including the reasons for initiating it, the restriction was nevertheless God’s will.
I understand that some people may not like the idea of option one. For those with fundamentalist leanings with regard to church leadership and history or those who have a presentist frame of reference, this is a very disturbing, disruptive, and even destabilizing conclusion.
From my perspective, option two has several problems. It requires either that God be the author of and responsible for everything (tsunamis and war included), or that God deliberately perpetuated egregious error in belief and teaching in his church. It elevates church policy over the beliefs and teachings of leaders and members.
I generally believe that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. I believe that church leaders are authorized by God to direct the church and the administration of our salvific liturgies. I also believe that these authorized agents of God at the general, local, and personal levels, like all of us, can be mistaken. I hope that we can be charitable and empathetic with our leaders and coreligionists, past and present. There is more than the priesthood restriction to ponder. As we are able to do so, I think that option one becomes less destabilizing. We find compassion. And if we are serious about our faith, I believe that we will need it.