Ask: Was the Mormon Church wrong to deny priesthood to black members before 1978?
The official policy of the LDS Church is that the racist practice was commanded by God, and not a result of racism among its leadership.
The Church has never apologized for the practice nor specifically repudiated racist teachings by LDS prophets.
Mitt Romney is skilled at evading this point, aided by general misunderstanding of the LDS Church.
He should be able to unequivocally denounce the racism of his church and of his past. He hasn’t.
During his 2008 campaign, Mitt Romney appeared on Meet The Press with Tim Russert. This specific question arose, and Russert came close to getting it right. Watch the clip:
At the end of that section, Russert asked:
“But it was wrong for your faith to [deny priesthood to blacks]?”
“I’ve told you exactly where I stand. My view is there’s no discrimination in the eyes of God and I could not have been more pleased than to see the change that occurred.”
What’s critical here is to note what Romney did not say; Russert asked “was it wrong?” Romney evaded. No apology. No repudiation of the Church or its racist practice.
Earlier in the interview, Romney states:
“I’m very proud of my faith, and of the faith of my fathers. And I certainly believe it is a faith, uh, well it’s True and I love my faith. And I’m not going to distance myself in any way from my faith.”
He will not separate his position and the position of the Church. The church has not apologized for the racist practice, nor will he.
Romney then extols his family credentials on the question of racism (some of which has been refuted) with a recounting of his own emotion at hearing of the change:
“I can remember when I heard about the change being made…I heard it on the radio, and I pulled over and literally wept. Um, even at this day it’s emotional.”
Mormons have learned how to talk about this issue to avoid deeper analysis. The language Romney uses is of a form that is common in the Church. For comparison, note the following, taken from an interview of Church Apostle Jeffrey Holland for the 2007 PBS Documentary “The Mormons” when asked the same question:
“I can remember exactly where I was…I started to cry, and I was absolutely uncontrollable. I felt my way to a chair … and I sort of slumped from the doorway into the chair and held my head, my face in my hands and sobbed.”
It’s important to note I am not questioning the emotional experience. As a young LDS boy, I remember feeling similar emotions. The ban was politically unpopular, and created discomfort for the Church and its membership.
Feeling emotion for the change is not the same as apologizing for and refuting the racist teachings.
Mitt Romney understands this, which is why when asked “was it wrong” by Tim Russert, he equivocated. If he answers “yes” he’s at odds with his Church. If he says “no” then he’s excusing racism.
Understanding The Equivocation
If you ask Mormons “Is the LDS Church sexist?” most will flatly deny it. The Church denies priesthood and leadership positions to women, as it once did to black men.
To most outsiders, that’s sexism. To the LDS Church? God’s plan. They’ll say women will receive all the blessings of heaven regardless of the exclusion.
In LDS context, womens’ rights flow through their husband’s authority. From The Proclamation on the Family, a foundational text in the LDS Church:
By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.
Prior to removal of the ban, the LDS Church taught the same of its black members; though they were denied full rights of membership, under god’s plan, they’d still receive blessings in heaven.
“We Aren’t Racist, God Is”
The seeming discrimination by the Church toward the Negro is not something which originated with man; but goes back into the beginning with God
Here’s the plain statement of the First Presidency of the LDS Church, delivered on December 15, 1969 in answer to increasing pressure on the issue of civil rights:
Our living prophet, President David O. McKay, has said, “The seeming discrimination by the Church toward the Negro is not something which originated with man; but goes back into the beginning with God….
“Revelation assures us that this plan antedates man’s mortal existence, extending back to man’s pre-existent state.”
President McKay has also said, “Sometime in God’s eternal plan, the Negro will be given the right to hold the priesthood.”
Until God reveals His will in this matter, to him whom we sustain as a prophet, we are bound by that same will. Priesthood, when it is conferred on any man comes as a blessing from God, not of men.
Were we the leaders of an enterprise created by ourselves and operated only according to our own earthly wisdom, it would be a simple thing to act according to popular will. But we believe that this work is directed by God and that the conferring of the priesthood must await His revelation. To do otherwise would be to deny the very premise on which the Church is established.
That Was 1969; How about Now?
Does the position outlined in the 1969 letter still hold? In 2003, I wrote to LDS Church Public Affairs; they affirmed the position: “God set the boundaries of the inhabitants of the earth and as a part of that determined who could hold the priesthood.” (See letters below)
Does It Matter?
Mitt Romney’s inability to clearly repudiated the racist teachings of his church and to apologize for his role in that discrimination suggest he’s more concerned with the image of his religion than with the equality of all humans. I note the irony of the title of his Book, “No Apology.”
A Note: Mormon Apologetics
There are hundreds of web sites devoted to spinning this issue. This was not written to refute apologetics, but to outline the issue for those not equipped to understand the nuances of the arguments.
A primary equivocation is to change the question: instead of asking “Is God the source of the ban” apologists ask “Why did god institute the ban?” To that question, they’ll quote numerous official statements which point out that the reason for the ban is unknown. This is misdirection.