On Tuesday, Randy Bott, a BYU professor of religion, told the Washington Post that the LDS Church’s historic prohibition on black priesthood ordination for men was a “blessing” to blacks because they were not “ready” for priesthood authority.
Just when we thought things had quieted down in Provo after several busy years of open and public displays of what can only be described as pure hatred for African Americans, up pops the Brandon Davies controversy, BYU Blackface video, and now BYU professor of religion Randy Bott’s recent remarks underscoring the enduring Latter day belief in black inferiority. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them,” the professor told the Washington Post, highlighting a significant problem for the Mormon faith.
Some years ago, I conceived of plan that had the potential to transform the way Black folk and other progressive thinkers within and outside the Mormon faith understood race. Black members are made to suffer by dealing with the continued belief among many well-intentioned Whites that having black-skin was an unequivocal mark of God’s disfavor. Yet, I believed that if enough like-minded white members could lend their voices and concerns to church authorities regarding this enduring pain and struggle, then we could cajole church authorities to issue a public apology in order to dispel the persistent racial folklore well-known in Mormonism. Unfortunately, the group I was trying to convince (Mormons for Equality and Social Justice) was not on board with my plan.
The folklore explains that the biblical counter-figure, Cain, was allegedly “cursed” with a skin of blackness for slaying his brother Abel. Despite official statements from LDS Church headquarters to the contrary, many active members still believe this to be the case. And this (mis)belief led to the many racial practices of the Church, such as those that denied black males the right to hold the priesthood and black women the blessings of the LDS temple ceremony. And though these practices were never official doctrine, through the many teachings from Brigham Young to Joseph Fielding Smith, these became assumed doctrine or pseudo-doctrine, if you will. In fact, many of these teaching still circulate today in Mormon theological published works. (pdf here).
White members are not the only ones, however, to believe in black Latter-day Saint inferiority. Surprisingly, many Black members of church actually believe the folklore as well, making it difficult to understand why anyone of African descent with a reasonable mind would consider joining the Mormon faith given its history of marks and curses upon black folks. And sadly, there are many other racist concepts found within the LDS Church.
Church authorities stubbornly sidestep charges that the predominately white faith is a racist organization. When racial issues arise such as with Randy Bott, it becomes significant enough to warrant an official statement by church authorities. However perfunctory it may be, it is still not enough. Mormons are not alone. African-Americans historically experienced similar racist encounters in other predominately white churches as well, which led to the creation of the Black Church and later caused Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to declare, “Sunday is the most segregated day of the week.” Regrettably, this fact has not changed much in America. Yet, the continued silence of the LDS Church implies that it is okay for black Mormons to bare the greater burden to defend the Mormon faith; a burden that is often turned inward in the psychological toll imposed on black members by white mythmaking which has an impact on mental wellbeing (White Parents, Black Children). The LDS Church must go further by issuing an official apology to all people of African descent.
Randy Bott’s comments made in this day and age in the 21st century are not unlike those of the white slave master who felt that slavery was ultimately good for blacks. Given his recent remarks, it would serve LDS Church authorities well to straightforwardly and unequivocally denounce all racist folklore ever uttered by any church authority on the matter. But to denounce these comments would be to openly admit that the Brethren made mistakes in their teachings and interpretations. Thus far, we have not seen anyone of authority in the church willing to take that stand.
This is Mitt Romney’s headache: to inherit and answer the definitive question (if he indeed gets the GOP nomination) of whether or not the LDS Church is or was ever racist. The truth is, the constitution states that there shall be “no religious test” to hold office. But Romney, must be prepared for a flurry of questions from media representatives and other political pundits as to how, if elected to the highest office in the land, can he actually be a president for all the people given his connection to the Mormon faith and its racial history. Though Romney is not a church official and, therefore, should not be made to represent the church, he will be deemed a de facto spokesperson by the media and nation. Romney has thus far avoided bringing his faith into the political arena, but he may not be able to avoid these questions for much longer. All issues are fair game. The American people deserve to know the particular social, cultural and religious experiences that shape the character and ideology of their leader. The American people want to know does Romney feel the same as Professor Bott?