Accomplishing God’s Work of Leading Out Against Prejudice

I wish the Church would tackle racism and nationalism with the same energy it devotes to sex. 

It’s not difficult to envision.  Just take every resource the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints currently spends defending chastity and reallocate them to anti-racism.  When we’re inevitably challenged for being too “political,” emphasize the great moral need for social policies which recognize the divine worth of every soul.    

We have the foundation to accomplish this.  In October 2020 President Nelson pleaded with us “to promote respect for all of God’s children.”  The Prophet “grieved that our Black brothers and sisters the world over are enduring the pains of racism and prejudice.”  He then called “upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice.” 

“Lead out” is an interesting phrase.  Church speakers typically deploy it as an invitation to light the world as positive examples of Christlike virtues.  We are asked to “lead out as examples of love”, “lead out in decency”,  “lead out for morality” and “lead out in righteousness.”  The textual assumption is that Latter-day Saints already possess these underlying virtues, we just need to magnify our efforts to inspire the world to follow our lead. 

President Nelson’s plea to “lead out in abandoning prejudice” flips this ordinary construction.  He did not use “lead out” to ask Latter-day Saints to promote a positive virtue, like inclusivity or love. Instead he asked us to abandon an existing negative trait: racial prejudice.  His words frankly acknowledge that our members harbor racist sentiments.  But importantly, the Prophet did not stop at urging private repentance.  Implicit in “leading out” is an element of public performance.  In the work of abandoning prejudice we should be as a city upon a hill. “Leading out” is not a quiet act.

Heeding the Prophet’s call to “lead out,” last month I scoured scripture and official Church materials to compile the best sources condemning racism and bigotry.  I then juxtaposed those quotes with common “attitudes and actions of prejudice” I have witnessed within our faith community.  My goal was to prepare a practical anti-racist lesson Sunday School teachers could use with a minimal amount of pushback.  I hope it helps.  But I am acutely aware that one random blog post is insufficient.  The fact that my post may have filled a need – the fact that no existing Church curriculum covers the same subject matter – is a problem.  

While writing that prior post, I kept crashing into walls of institutional silence.  Whenever I searched for specific answers the best I found was vagueness.  Plenty of Church sources broadly condemn “racism, sexism, and nationalism,” but none illustrate or apply those words.  None tied those abstract concepts to the actual racist, sexist, and nationalist attitudes which infest our congregations.  None explained why racism is a pernicious sin, or the spiritual consequences which attach to it. None reckoned with specific examples of prejudice in our faith’s past. 

Combatting prejudice demands specificity.  We are not being specific.

* * *

Any empirical assessment of the Church’s historical treatment of racism shows we’re not “leading out” enough.  If we are to fulfill President Nelson’s counsel, we need an institutional commitment to shift our priorities.  Thankfully, that shift has already begun. The last decade has seen the Church launch an NAACP partnership, a pro-refugee campaign, and efforts to promote family-centered immigration policy.  The trend line is in a positive direction. 

Nevertheless, embracing the prophetic challenge to lead out against prejudice requires us to (at least) quadruple the relative amount of time we spend tackling racism.  Inclusivity has long been dwarfed by discussions of modesty, pornography, coffee, alcohol, and sex.  Frankly, its hard to teach our members to embrace diverse strangers when so much of our messaging revolves around judging “Babylonian” lifestyles.

The above graph reflects my attempt to aggregate General Conference usage of 200 topically-related key words overtime.  (My data is available on Google Drive).  While interesting, these aggregate statistics actually obscure the depth of qualitative disparity; too many of the Church’s past references to bigotry defend it.  More recently, Church leaders tend to mention “racism” with passing generalities while sexual immorality is discussed in lengthy sermons replete with specific anecdotes.  

I suspect these trends map onto members’ experiences. Personally, I vividly remember youth lessons about a fornicating couple who died in a car accident before being sealed in the temple, lengthy debates about the “line of chastity,” and sermons on the evils of R-rated movies and MTV.   President Hinckley once celebrated Notre Dame for refusing to carry the “salacious” NBC television show “Couplings,” while President Bednar condemned fake personas on social media and in video games like “Second Life.”  I heard the chewed gum and licked cupcakes metaphors to describe virginity.  I often attended firesides where we were urged to confess sexual details to bishops. During mutual activities we practiced how to say “no” to physical advances, turn off radios blaring innuendo-laden music, and walk out of sexually-charged shows.  None of that same specificity was ever attached to prejudice.  In racking my brain and searching my journals I cannot remember a single “Standards Night” that practiced how to identify or shut down racist jokes.

I keep circling back to this lack of detail when I ponder how Church members are to “lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice.”  President Nelson’s plea from October has not been further defined.  What are the “attitudes and actions of prejudice” we are supposed to be abandoning?  A list would help. 

Unlike other roll-outs of new church priorities, President Nelson did not devote an entire Conference session to the logistics of abandoning prejudice.  Instead he allocated a (notable) five paragraphs.  His sermon was hailed as “the most pointed and potent condemnation of racism from the pulpit by a Latter-day Saint prophet in recent years.”  But it’s still just five paragraphs. There is no new “God is No Respecter of Persons” anti-prejudice lesson manual.  There is no “All Are Alike unto God” proclamation for kids to memorize and families to frame for their entryways.  There is no “I Was A Stranger” splash page of community service projects.  There is no #LeadOut hashtag with 30 days of practical anti-racism ideas for Instagram. 

Or to offer an even more concrete example: there is no new Perpetual Equality Fund.  We are not soliciting contributions for and then sponsoring microloans to underprivileged communities.  It’s not like we lack the resources to create one.  In addition to the Ensign Peak $37 billion rainy day fund,  Mehrsa Baradaran is a BYU alum.  She’s right here.  Her award-winning literature on the racial wealth gap recently inspired Netflix to invest $100 million in black communities.  There is no reason her Church could not “lead out” in front of secular Netflix.  President Nelson could readily direct the Church to extend our new partnership with the NAACP by investing at least as much in social justice as we did in the City Creek Mall. 

* * *

A serious commitment to leading out against prejudice also requires rewriting and reprioritizing Church curriculum. Coffee and sex is discussed orders of magnitude more often than racism. The most our curriculum dedicates to race is in lessons on the 1978 ”Revelation on the Priesthood,” i.e. Official Declaration #2.  But while race is mentioned, the contents of these lessons are not anti-racist. 

Take the 2021 Come Follow Me manual.  Official Declaration #2 is not covered until December (when many wards may skip it because they fell behind during the year, or because they prefer to talk about the Nativity during Christmas).  Even if taught, President Spencer W. Kimball’s inspiration to repeal the temple and priesthood ban is not framed as a frank acknowledgment of error, a response to societal racism, or a call to individual and institutional repentance.  Instead, the manual cites Official Declaration #2 as an abstract and joyous example of continuing revelation.  The lesson elides any discussion of historical context or the actual suffering the temple and priesthood ban wrought upon our black sisters and brothers.  This approach may assuage white guilt but does nothing to address black pain.

The closest the entire year of “Come Follow Me” gets to the actual topic of racism is in a July lesson (page 118), when it simply asks “How might the world be different if everyone understood that we are all children of God?”  It then invites families to watch a single “diverse” video.  I saw nothing else.

The Doctrine & Covenants Institute Manual coverage of the same topic fares only slightly better.  That lesson at least “disavows” all prior racist justifications for the temple and priesthood ban.  But it does not undertake the harder work of admitting that these “man-made” “reasons” for church “policies” were taught for decades as (false) “doctrine.”  Nor does the manual attempt to address the still-present aftershocks of the ban in Church attitudes or teachings.  For example, as recently as 2017, the Eternal Marriage institute manual included a President Kimball quote from 1976 (uttered before Official Declaration #2) which advised against interracial marriage.  I repeatedly heard that advice parroted at Church from my childhood through college in the 2000s.  Without question, I heard far more justifications for racism during my religious upbringing than condemnations of it.

The Church has offered no apologies for past racist teachings and made little effort to supplant them with inclusive messaging.  Far from “leading out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice,” the approach to prejudice has long been institutional silence. When called out on examples of problematic language, the curriculum department quietly removes them.  The worst of Apostle Ezra Taft Benson’s nationalism-mongering from the 1950s and 1960s have been excised from Church materials, but right-wing LDS freedom forums still meme-ify them.  Those teachings have never (to my knowledge) been disavowed; we just ignore their existence while occasionally quoting Elder Hugh B. Brown’s contemporary equivalents of sub-tweets.  The resulting void is often filled in our classrooms by people parroting Randy Bott-esque wisdom sourced from pre-1978 lived experiences.

* * *

Part of the institutional inertia with allocating resources to “leading out” against prejudice is the ambiguous place racism and nationalism occupy in Latter-day Saint thought.  Where exactly does harboring “prejudice” fall in our theological hierarchy?  Is “leading out” against racism just a nice thing to do – like genealogical indexing – or is it a commandment? 

The answer should be, unequivocally, that anti-racism is a commandment.  Christ preached “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” as the second greatest commandment.  (Matthew 22:37-39).  President Hinckley taught 15 years ago that “No man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ.” (Racial Intolerance, 2006).

But if abandoning prejudice is a commandment, where does racism rank on our faith’s tacit worthiness scale of “ignoring a beggar” to “cheating on a test” to “drinking whiskey” to “having an affair?”  What are the practical consequences if we sin against it?  Is racist commentary in BYU classrooms punished as an Honor Code violation?  Could someone be called into their Bishop’s office for posting an anti-immigrant screed on social media?  Will questions about harboring bias be added to temple recommend interviews?  Does promoting “any teachings, practices, or doctrine contrary to those of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?” include support for right-wing fringe groups?

How about advancing white nationalism?  After the 2017 death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville the Church said “White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them.” But that statement has never been repeated outside of a press release.  In the wake of the January 6, 2021 violence against the U.S. Capitol – an event far too many church members participated in — the Church belatedly announced: “We condemn violence and lawless behavior, including the recent violence in Washington, D.C. and any suggestion of further violence.”  

What do those condemnations mean?  The Handbook is silent on spiritual discipline for racism, nationalism, or supporting a violent insurrection.  The brief section on “Prejudice” was just added in December 2020.  It repeats President Nelson’s five paragraphs from the October 2020 conference.  By contrast, the sections setting expectations and ecclesiastical consequences for sexual conduct are detailed and lengthy.

Finally, what concrete guidance exists for members trying to “lead out” against prejudice in our wards and stakes?  How are we supposed to deal with it? On January 7, 2021, I privately texted a woman I once served with in a ward calling because I saw her posting misinformation about the Capitol violence.  She responded – I wish I were exaggerating – by doubling down on her rhetoric, citing the Old Testament, and then calling for an ethnic cleansing in America.  The only death threats I have ever received have come from “DezNat” affiliates in response to my By Common Consent posts advancing anti-racism.  My stories are neither unique nor rare.

* * *

The Church does not have to shrug and accept this festering vile.  We should not continue to respond to racism with silence. Christ calls us to preach his peaceable gospel.  The Prophet has called us to lead out in abandoning the attitudes and actions of prejudice. The Saints have the capacity to combat the prejudice in our communities.  Our skills and resources can be reallocated to building compassion in our communities and around the globe.

We just need the institutional will.  So let’s go forth with faith.  Let’s promote the cause of anti-racism.  Let’s roll up our sleeves, write a practical curriculum, publish correlated checklists, pick an Instagram hashtag, and get to work.

Comments

  1. I agree with your points about specific examples. The president of the church can get up and say “Don’t be racist” and every member will think “Nothing to change for me, I’m not racist”.
    I think that the best place to start would be with the church naming and shaming groups that lionize US Southern Confederates. They dress up as genealogists and historians, but really are there to corrupt history to mold current behavior.
    The excuse not to, is that the church is an international church and shouldn’t focus on just US issues; but I don’t think that it would be too hard to extend to other countries should the need arise.

  2. It would be so easy to extend to other countries. Just assemble focus groups (like we already do on so many theological topics) in every place adversely affected by colonialism (see all of Africa, Latin America, and Europe for starters) and ask those members to start listing all of the racial problems they see and experience. Then adjust the curriculum to not just cover the broad sins but the specific manifestations in every region.

  3. Excellent work Carolyn.

  4. Greg McCall says:

    Thank you.

  5. One point that I’ve tried to emphasize when I’ve spoken in sacrament meetings on this topic recently is that President Nelson asked us to lead out in abandoning not just conscious bias, but racist “attitudes *and actions*.” Almost nobody will admit to having racist attitudes, and I don’t think I’m a racist, but if I look around myself, I live in a mostly-white neighborhood, I am a member of an almost all-white profession, and we belong to an almost all-white church. If I were a racist, how much of that would really be different? If we’re not racist, then we need to stop living mostly segregated lives.

  6. I have read a very informative book that deals with this topic and provides amazing background information not readily available to the lay member. Check out “Mormonism and White Supremacy” by Joanna Brooks (2020)

  7. “Check out “Mormonism and White Supremacy” by Joanna Brooks”

    You know, a good number of LDS academics I’ve talked to are kinda ticked about this book, because it simply repackaged scholarship done by others and ratcheted up the outrage factor. Per the AML review, “If you are an academic, you’ll notice that the history presented here is not original research—Brooks isn’t breaking new ground, but rather assembling a well-established history and reading it through the lens of contemporary critical race theory. If you’re a historian, you will note that there are some interpretations of events where Brooks could have been more responsible, and where her use of secondary, non-academic sources is problematic—you might wish for more nuance in these cases.”

    Also, to play devil’s advocate to the OP, “take every resource the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints currently spends defending chastity and reallocate them to anti-racism.”

    Who’s going to advocate for chastity and sexual restraint, then? Society at large? Netflix? Teenagers?

  8. On the “every resource” point I didn’t realize I had deleted my adverb in some point during revision. I meant to say “most” or “nearly” every resource. A little bit of chastity is fine but we take it to absurd levels; can we seriously refocus it around consent instead?

  9. Also: I will note that teenagers and young adults nowadays are doing better at chastity and sexual restraint than previous generations at their ages!

  10. Anon,
    Thanks for your reply. I am not a historian or a linguist. I am looking for information on an ignored subject for many church members. I looked up the word nuance because it is so popular these days! My opinion is that racism in the church may be nuanced for white members, but not for minorities. If you have original references you want to recommend, please expand.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    I was on my mission when the 1978 revelation was received. That was a remarkable, glorious moment. And I totally understand taking a couple of years for the church to catch it’s collective breath. But by 1980 the church should have rolled up its sleeves to start the hard work of undoing the effects of the ban. But that never happened; instead we patted ourselves on the back, said “Well, we checked that box off” and went about our business. So now it’s 40 years later, and we have made only negligible progress. This is a failure of leadership, largely grounded in an unwillingness to throw prior leaders under the bus. We weren’t even willing for the longest time to affirm the ban was even wrong. Randy Bott was not an outlier by any means. The Church had simply failed to do the hard work of moving forward on this issue. I applaud President Nelson’s encouragement to do more in this sphere. But institutionally the Church needs to roll up its sleeves as well.

  12. Geoff-AusG says:

    lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice.”  while at the same time being prejudiced against LGBTI people and denying women the priesthood?

    Pres Nelson gave his talk about racismin October, in November 70% of his most obedient supporters voted for a racist/white supremacist, and most still seem to support him.

    Not leading out yet by a long way. Might have to catch up before you can claim to lead

  13. This is excellent. I’m very excited to dig into your Sunday School lesson.

    I’m curious how you square the President Hinckley quote you shared with the long history of racism and bigotry in Church history. That is absolutely not suggesting we should justify or turn a blind eye towards the prejudice that was taught far too long, and I think their statements are sinful and require repentance. But are we safe in saying that Brigham Young through Bruce McConkie (and beyond, as it is clear that racism did not end in 1978) were not true disciples of Christ?

  14. @Allen – if you’re going to decide whether someone you never knew personally was or was not a true disciple of Christ….well, something about motes and beams comes to mind.

  15. Equating sex / chastity matters with racism and nationalism is missing the mark. They are hardly fungible topics, even though the last two are often bundled together in the same condemnation. What’s more, like a good activist you are cherry picking elements of prophetic teaching and ignoring the broader theme of the discourse or twisting the original meaning.

    For example, Elder Bednar’s original address warned against the *excessive* use of online games / communities like Second Life, warning of the dangers inherent in online anonymity. Was that not a salient topic for a YSA fireside? Especially when first given in 2009? Can you not see the timeliness and foresight in such a theme? Read in context for both the address and the time period, President Kimball’s statement is also without issue – unless of course you’re reading it with the now-super-woke lenses of 2021.

    I seem to notice a thread in these articles that could most aptly be summarized as, “Oh, why, can’t the Church and its membership just think and act like me?!” You have a specific hierarchy of values, as we all do. But extrapolating your preferences and interpretive framework (which feels unfortunately influenced by the ideas of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi) onto the Church as a whole feels rather quaint and ill-informed. Quit lambasting from an armchair. Look for the good in the Church – of which there is *ample* – and write about that for a change. The glass-half-full perspective might do us all some good.

  16. Bensen: I seem to notice a thread in General Conference that could most aptly be summarized as, “Oh, why, can’t the Church and its membership just think and act like me?!”

  17. Bensen: The OP did “look for the good in the Church” — she cited three specific examples where the Church was taking action against racism. Then she suggested additional actions the Church could take that would in fact strengthen our missionary outreach to people of color. This was no “quaint” “lambasting from an armchair.” It was an articulate well-researched effort to take up President Nelson’s challenge to “lead out” against racism.

  18. Anon: fully agreed in the OP’s articulateness and research efforts. The hyperlinks were appreciated. When juxtaposing the three positive examples of Church action against racism with the tenor and content of the remainder of the article, I was reminded of mission stories that begin with, “Ah, Elder So-and-so – love that guy to death, but….”, the story that follows then being a prime example of how Elder So-and-so was *not* beloved at all. I stand by my original critique: for the author, racism is apparently much, much higher on her priority list than it is for Church leadership, and this disparity does not indicate that the broader leadership is shirking its duty or is somehow tacitly racist for not being as woke as the OP. The reality that modern-day prophets, apostles, and the inspired auxiliary leaders are largely focused elsewhere might help inform our own priorities.

  19. “I don’t hate nobody, but I love my own!” Muhammed Ali

    Maybe racial integration is not a policy that is possible because people naturally like to be with people like themselves. White Liberals and their idealistic views try and force people to behave in unnatural ways.

    I can look forward to the time when Christ returns and His people have learned to live with higher and holier ways.

  20. Mark L–do you have a theory about why President Nelson has also asked us to behave in these “unnatural ways”?

  21. keepapitchinin says:

    I’m trying to guess whether those “higher and holier ways” include the apparently natural segregation approved by Mark L, or, if not, whether Christ’s people will somehow learn to live higher and holier ways without actually, you know, practicing them now,

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