The LDS Church on Wednesday reiterated its position -- in forceful language -- that it does not tolerate racism. It was responding to comments made to the Washington Post by BYU religion professor Randy Bott, who pretty much laid out all the laundry on blacks and the priesthood in Mormon history. But the church's statement Wednesday, as with past ones, does not entirely dispel the fog.
Bott had gone off with a number of rationalizations for the church's historical denial of priesthood to blacks -- most of them horrifying to modern Mormons who have long tried to escape this particular pair of cement shoes. But Bott was only the point man. Close observers of the LDS Church know that its prophets and apostles have said some very uncomplimentary things about blacks continually up to 1978, and some of those notions persist even now in the rank and file.
"It is not known precisely why, how, or when this [priesthood] restriction began but what is clear is that it ended decades ago," the church said Wednesday. Yes, we know it ended. But that doesn't get to the heart of the matter. The modern church has consistently repudiated racism in the present tense, but it has been light on commentary about controversial racial doctrines suggested by its scriptures and preached by various high leaders until 1978 -- the idea that black skin is the mark of Cain; that black people were not "valiant" in pre-earth life; that God relegated blacks to servitude; that righteous living lightens the skin. Individual members were free to go wild with any interpretation they chose, and they were typically not disabused of error. In a top-down church that embraces the notion that the words of prophets and apostles are scripture, it's not surprising that members would buy into whatever was being preached at the moment, and would in turn pass those ideas along. (Moreover, if prophets and apostles can speak either for God or as flawed men, how does one know which words are which?)
In 2006, church president Gordon B. Hinckley admonished Mormons against racism: “No man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the church of Christ.” So which prophets and apostles in church history were out of harmony? Many black Mormons would like a direct answer to that. They would like closure. Does the church explain race or doesn't it?
LDS apostle Jeffrey R. Holland came close in 2006 when he told a PBS interviewer that past "folklore," including some notions perpetuated by church leaders, was misguided. "All I can say is, however well-intentioned the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong." So that leaves only the question of clarity -- a distributive approach to doctrine where individual interpretation yields a crazy quilt of folklore vs. an unambiguous statement from the top of a highly hierarchical organization that, but for this issue, seems to guard its doctrines with vigor.