Guest opinion: Wilcox’s remarks expose deep-seated, harmful ideologies
On Feb. 6, prominent LDS leader and speaker Brad Wilcox addressed several controversial topics in a youth fireside speech in the Alpine Utah Stake. Such topics included the priesthood ban on men of African descent, women’s roles, people who leave the Church and the claim that the LDS Church is the most correct religion on earth. In the subsequent barrage of social media reactions, many found his remarks to be, at best, insensitive and ignorant and, at worst, condescending and bigoted. Perhaps another reason for the explosion is that Wilcox has developed a widespread reputation throughout the Church for his compassionate and grace-centered framing of God and repentance in a religion that is highly centered upon works and rituals. Thus, many Latter-day Saints were confused at how such prejudicial and offensive remarks could possibly square with his welcoming and inclusive ecclesiastical mantle.
Perhaps the most derogatory remarks dealt with the priesthood ban on men of African descent. He began by noting: “Now sadly, we live in a time where a lot of people get uptight about priesthood issues. It’s one of the most glorious things we have in the Church, and yet people want to sit and fight about it, and get uptight about it.” Wilcox applied the word “uptight” several times to people who had objections to church policies or teachings, past or present. Labeling people who criticize the Church’s former priesthood prohibition as “uptight” delegitimizes viewpoints that call into question a discriminatory church policy. Wilcox continued:
“How come the Blacks didn’t get the priesthood until 1978? Brigham Young was a jerk? Members of the Church were prejudiced? Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions. Maybe instead of saying, why did the Blacks have to wait until 1978, maybe what we should be asking is, why did the whites, and other races, have to wait until 1829?”
Rife with historical ignorance, white supremacy and outright racism, this statement caused perhaps the greatest stir on social media. One person ironically asked: “Why did the Blacks have to wait ’til 1955 to ride in the front of the bus? The real question is, why did whites have to wait so long to ride a bus at all?” Wilcox seems painfully unaware (or willfully ignorant) of the fact that white members of the Church were (and still are) given opportunities that Black members have been denied. To imply that white members have experienced a comparable degree of suffering and oppression is an egregious demonstration of revisionist history.
Wilcox also tackled the issue of women and the priesthood, a topic that has been controversial within the Church for decades. He began by pointing out:
“Girls, you’re gonna hear a lot of people say a lot of things, and many of them say them with very angry voices. But just because someone is angry doesn’t necessarily make him or her right. Just because someone is loud doesn’t necessarily make him or her right.”
Similar to his using the label “uptight,” framing perspectives that scrutinize church policies around priesthood as “loud” and “angry” was part of Wilcox’s effort to make his own arguments seem reasonable and level-headed, in contrast to the “crazy” and “irrational” voices of others who disagree. He continued:
“Girls, listen closely, because I don’t know that you’ll ever have anyone explain it quite this point-blank again. You have access to every priesthood blessing. … Your life exudes priesthood. … So, what is it that women don’t have? Two things. One, priesthood keys, and two, priesthood ordination. Well how come women don’t have priesthood keys? How come women aren’t ordained to the priesthood? Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions. Maybe we should be asking, why don’t they need to be?”
Echoing the sentiments of other male leaders, Wilcox reassured women that they possess all blessings of the priesthood, so it doesn’t matter that they are barred from serving in priesthood leadership positions. He again pointed out that asking why women do not have the priesthood is the “wrong question.” It is interesting that questions exposing inequity and oppression within the Church are considered “wrong,” whereas questions that serve to vindicate and justify church policies are considered “right.”
Wilcox concluded that women “can enter a temple without being ordained,” something “no male on the planet earth can do.” He asked, “So what is it that sisters are bringing with them from a premortal life that men are trying to learn through ordination?” This argument furthers longstanding claims by LDS leaders that women are inherently better and more virtuous than men, and thus do not need the priesthood. One LDS woman recently told me that Wilcox’s gentle reassurances “cleverly mask the painful realities of gender inequality that continue to exist within the Church.”
Wilcox also elicited widespread opposition with his statement that all other religions are simply “playing church,” while Latter-day Saints have the “only true Church.” He asked the audience:
“How many of you used to play school? How many of you used to play Church? My kids used to play Church. Got a little nervous when my daughter started blessing the sacrament. And I used to think, oh, that is so cute. But now I’m older, and I’ve realized that it wasn’t just cute, it’s actually what most people in the world are doing. They’re playing church. They’re sincere. They want it to count. But they don’t have the authority. They don’t have God’s permission.”
One convert to the Church reacted in this way: “I never once heard a Presbyterian minister stand at a pulpit and mock any faith tradition. Never once.” Wilcox maintained a mocking tone for most of the speech, even making fun of one of his BYU students who expressed doubts concerning the founder of the Church, Joseph Smith. The student candidly said: “I don’t believe in Joseph Smith anymore, but I still believe in God and Jesus,” to which Wilcox replied, “Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but do you realize how stupid you just sounded?” His belittling response reinforces the idea that people who have concerns or disagreements about LDS history or teachings are intellectually inferior, ignorant or defiant.
Similarly, Wilcox employed a fear-based rhetoric in describing the fate of individuals who leave the faith:
“Well, if you want to leave the Church, say goodbye to the gift of the holy ghost. You’ll feel the spirit now and then, but you’re not gonna be able to feel it always. … If you wanna walk away from the Church, say goodbye to your whole concept of God. … I hope you realize that if you walk away from this religion, you lose everything. Everything that truly matters most. So, stay put. Stay strong. Look for every possible reason to stay.”
Wilcox’s statement that those who part ways with the Church “lose everything,” including their concept of God, is not only hurtful and judgmental, it can often cause profound guilt and anxiety for individuals who sincerely desire to leave or who are uncertain about remaining in the church. I recently spoke with a member who describes themselves as “on the fence.” They felt that Wilcox’s patronizing and condescending pleas will only end up alienating people like themselves who are wrestling with painful and complex questions about the Church.
Despite the deep wounds inflicted by his remarks, I credit Wilcox for publicly apologizing about his race-related comments, especially considering that LDS leaders sparingly give public apologies.
“My dear friends, I made a serious mistake last night, and am truly sorry. The illustration I attempted to use about the timing of the revelation was wrong. I’ve reviewed what I said and I recognized that what I hoped to express about trusting God’s timing did NOT come through as I intended. To those I offended, especially my Black friends, I offer my sincere apologies, and ask for your forgiveness. I am committed to doing better.”
Still, many have concerns that his apology was more a response to public scrutiny than a genuine expression of remorse, particularly because Wilcox has presented almost the same version of this message at other fireside speeches throughout the country. In addition, his apology never walked back the racist belief that God was responsible for the priesthood ban to begin with. As the outspoken Black LDS women and author Zandra Vanes put it: “I don’t know why we are more comfortable calling God racist than a man racist.”
While it is difficult to speculate on the sincerity of his apology, it is easy to observe the effects his rhetoric has had on so many. Putting intentions aside, the racist, sexist and condescending ideas Wilcox put forth expose deep-seated prejudices and bigoted ideologies that must be acknowledged and taken seriously. And most importantly, we must all make clear that this harmful rhetoric will no longer be tolerated in a Church that aspires toward increased love, understanding and acceptance.
Keith Burns is a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College who specializes in Mormonism & Sexuality.