Love in Word and Deed
By Scott H.
This essay originally appeared on the blog, No More Strangers. Click here to read Scott’s original post.
By the late 1960s, the position of the LDS church towards its black members was becoming increasingly untenable. The Civil Rights decade was coming to an end, and yet the Mormons had not budged an official inch in their complete prohibition of members of “African descent” receiving the priesthood or participating in saving ordinances of the temple. Although some outspoken apostles had made official sounding pronouncements providing both supporting rationale and theological inferences for the restriction, there was a surprising lack of direct scriptural or doctrinal support of the ban—a ban, which, until the Civil Rights Movement, was neither unusual nor remarkable given the level of cultural and institutional racial prejudice in the US—and beyond.
In 1969, Hugh B. Brown of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles proposed that the Church’s policy towards black members of the church be reversed, allowing priesthood blessings to be given regardless of race[i]. Perhaps President Brown recognized that the lack of scriptural support or a clear-cut revelation left the church an opening—administrative action to remove an administrative error. President Harold B. Lee, acting in the stead of a disabled President McKay, called for a vote among the apostles and the measure was defeated. In December of that same year, the First Presidency issued a statement quoting President McKay as saying that
The seeming discrimination by the Church toward the Negro is not something which originated with man; but goes back into the beginning with God.[ii]
At the beginning of his administration, President Kimball reiterated this position in a public statement:
[I have given it] a great deal of thought, a great deal of prayer. The day might come when they would be given the priesthood, but that day has not come yet. Should the day come it will be a matter of revelation. Before changing any important policy, it has to be through a revelation from the Lord. [iii]
These public pronouncements effectively removed the administrative option favored by President Brown. When faced with the choice of determining whether the ban was of God’s leaders or of God himself, the determination was made that God was indeed its author. When the priesthood and temple ban were finally lifted in 1978, it was done by revelation, ratified by the quorum of apostles, as President Kimball himself suggested it would be.
While few Mormons would suggest that the church erred in lifting the ban, it is worth considering the ongoing impact on the church from the way it was lifted. Had the restrictions been lifted through administrative action correcting an administrative error, the membership may have had cause to doubt other prophetic decisions. Had the restrictions been lifted through a revelation where God was quoted as having “changed his mind about black people” as wryly suggested in The Book of Mormon musical, the church would have been faced with a major theological challenge of a God who lacks omniscience and perfect goodness—a God who made a mistake about how He treats people. Once church leaders made the determination that prophets perfectly interpreted God’s perfect will, they were left with another conundrum. Why would a God who loves all his children keep his blessings from some of them because of the color of their skin? Rather than answer the paradox directly, the leadership of the church affirmed both theological points while sidestepping the apparent contradiction. Prophets still perfectly interpreted God’s will, and God still loved all his children— however God’s will to the restored Church very clearly included divinely sanctioned discrimination. Discrimination isn’t wrong in this view of God, it is only wrong when God says it is. If the ban hadn’t been lifted, it would still be completely acceptable today, so long as God’s prophet says it is.
Over the next several decades, a wide range of people attempted to solve the paradox of a God who both loves blacks and discriminated against them in the modern church. The most common approach was to justify the ban as being scripturally justified, particularly by the Old Testament. God discriminated in ancient Israel, so it is okay if he does so today. There is, of course, a significant amount of scriptural support for a God who loves all his children and yet condones unequal treatment of a particular segment of them, particularly in the Old Testament. However, it does not seem accurate to suggest that because an Old Testament teaching exists that the gospel restoration would necessarily incorporate it. For every Old Testament teaching that was adopted in the restoration (temples, priesthood) one can easily point to another that was discarded as having been fulfilled in the Law of Christ (dietary prohibition, blood sacrifices). By the second decade of the 21st century, the apologetics used to justify the priesthood ban increasingly are seen as unconvincing and in some instances perhaps even embarrassing, much as 19th century pro-slavery apologetics (which similarly relied on early Old Testament teachings) were less convincing post-emancipation. Today the church has denounced much of this apologia[iv]; however it is easy enough to see how and why these arguments came about as members have attempted to solve the paradox handed to them in Official Declaration 2.
We now see the lessons of 1978 being applied to the treatment of the LGBT community inside and outside of the church. The amount and degree of divinely sanctioned discrimination is, thankfully, on the decline. In the 1970s, gay Mormons were entrapped and jailed at BYU[v]—today they aren’t. In a church pamphlet distributed to the Aaronic Priesthood of the church in the 1980s, Elder Boyd K. Packer seemed to suggest that physical violence against gay missionaries was acceptable. Today that pamphlet is available online as a .pdf but is no longer printed and distributed by the Church[vi]. In 2008, the church turned ward meeting houses into anti-marriage equality canvassing centers in California[vii]. In 2012, no ward meeting houses were used to canvass against equality measures in four other states[viii].
These changes do not represent an admission of error on the part of the prophets. God hasn’t “changed his mind about (gay) people.” The entrapment, violence, and church-directed political action were not wrong then, they just are not right today. God may yet again choose to direct and condone specific acts of discrimination against LGBT individuals. God’s prophets will stand ready to let God’s chosen people know what level of discrimination is expected and permitted at any given time. And if God can discriminate against people and still love them, then so can we as members.
This, then, is perhaps the most dangerous of all the lessons of the Church’s handling of the priesthood and temple ban for blacks and its repeal. Most Mormons I know, like most non-Mormons I know, are genuinely good people who want to help and not hurt others. However, by making both love and discrimination divinely compatible, we enable people to hurt others and to feel good about doing so. The new church website, www.mormonsandgays.com, begins with the word “love” and repeats it another 23 times. In the text of the website and in the three video presentations given by Church Apostles we are told how to love gay people in only the most general of terms but how to discriminate in the most specific of terms. Nowhere are parents told explicitly not to kick their children out of their homes. Nowhere are Bishops told to exercise restraint in excommunicating vulnerable gay youth. However, we are reminded that we can’t countenance gay marriage inside or outside the church; that church members in loving, long-term same gender relationships are subject to discipline; and that parents of gay children are morally justified in asking them not to come around if they won’t leave their loved one behind. The general sentiment of love seems belied by the specifics of discrimination, and I can’t help but wonder if there was an attempt by the authors of the website to overindulge in expressions of love in an effort to counterbalance the heavy weight of specified hurt.
I’ve noticed today many members of the church similarly feel compelled to be overly effusive in the sentiment of love, right before they offer up their support of measures and policies that deny full fellowship and legal equality to LGBT individuals (thankfully, many members of the Church today do support fellowship and legal equality). One hears echoes of Elder Mark Peterson’s comments about the priesthood ban when he said:
Now we are generous with the Negro. We are willing that the Negro have the highest kind of education. I would be willing to let every Negro drive a Cadillac if they could afford it. I would be willing that they have all the advantages they can get out of life in the world. But let them enjoy these things among themselves. I think the Lord segregated the Negro and who is man to change that segregation?[ix]
The attempted kindness grates the ear in 2013 and reads of thinly veiled condescension and contempt. It may be that this type of sentiment was extreme for the time even among Mormon leadership and membership; however, it is instructive that Elder Peterson was able to make this statement to a large audience of members with impunity and without public sanction. Will today’s statements from Mormons that couple generalities of love with specific measures of discrimination toward LGBT individuals be viewed some day with a similar level of chagrin? I think they will, and sooner than many think.
[i] Quinn, Michael D. The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power Salt Lake City, (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1994), page 15
[ii] Lester E. Bush, Jr. and Armand L. Mauss, eds., Neither White Nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church, (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1984), appendix
[iii] Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), chapter 21, page 1
[iv] “Church Statement Regarding ‘Washington Post’ Article on Race and the Church”. LDS Church Newsroom, 29 February 2012. http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/racial-remarks-in-washington-post-article
[v] Connell O’Donovan, “Private Pain, Public Purges: A History of Homosexuality at Brigham Young University” address at University of California, Santa Cruz, 28 April 1997
[vi] Boyd K. Packer, “To Young Men Only”, address at General Conference, Priesthood Session, 2 October 1976. http://www.lds.org/bc/content/shared/content/english/pdf/language-materials/33382_eng.pdf?lang=eng
[viii] Joanna Brook, “Mormons Prepare for WA Marriage Equality Fight”, 21 May 2012. http://www.religiondispatches.org/dispatches/joannabrooks/6001/mormons_prepare_for_wa_marriage_equality_fight/
[ix] Mark E. Petersen, “Race Problems—As They Affect The Church,” address at Brigham Young University, 27 August 1954